ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The rusted scrap of metal was almost imperceptible in the ruddy soil where so much blood had been shed 75 years before when American soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy, and fought their way across France and into history.
On a cold day in March 2017, British amateur historian and World War II buff David Billingham found the metal scrap while researching the battle for Hill 192, a scruffy berm occupied by German troops that afforded views of enemy lines approaching from the coast and around the strategically important town of Saint-Lô.
The metal was what remained of a U.S. soldier’s dog tag. Although it was corroded and jagged, the soldier’s name was still legible: David S. Ortiz.
Thus began the search for Pfc. Ortiz – who he was, where he came from, who he left behind.
Billingham learned that Ortiz was from the Army’s K Company of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, which landed on Omaha Beach in France on June 7, 1944, a day after the D-Day invasion of Europe during World War II.
“Throughout, we can assume David would have been on or close to the front line,” he said. “We know from the reports and records that David was killed close to Saint-Georges-d’Elle, a scene of bitter fighting.”
Ortiz, 28, died 75 years ago this Friday – July 12, 1944, the same day U.S. troops took the hill.
Billingham had less luck finding Ortiz’s relatives.
“I and my colleagues always work on the basis that an identifiable item should be returned to the family and our payback is only ever the enjoyment of our hobby, and the pride and pleasure that comes from being able to do things like this,” he said. “But I needed help.”
That’s where Ron Overley of Placitas came in.
In late 2011, Overley had been asked to photograph the tombstones of soldiers buried in the Santa Fe National Cemetery who had been killed during the Normandy invasion.
One of those tombstones was for David S. Ortiz.
“I must have taken 40 or 50 of those photos,” he said. “I posted them on a memorial site called Find A Grave, and that was the end of it. So when David Billingham called a couple of years ago about Ortiz, I had no idea what he was talking about.”
After Billingham filled him in, Overley was in. They were two men on different sides of the globe in search of a family that likely had no idea Ortiz’s dog tag existed.
“For two years, we searched records at the cemetery, in the state archives in Santa Fe, and asked for help from the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars,” Overley said. “City clerks, librarians in small towns and others searched for family members.”
To complicate matters, Ortiz’s military records were destroyed in the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire in St. Louis.
A two-sentence obituary in a Santa Fe newspaper offered clues. According to the article, Ortiz was the son of Louisita Ortiz of Wagon Mound, where a memorial service at the town’s Presbyterian church had been held.
“But the church no longer existed,” Overley said. “The town clerk there tried to find any records of family members, but she was not having any luck.”
Earlier this year, Billingham spotted a post about a David Ortiz while scouring Ancestry.com and sent a message to the poster.
He received no response.
The poster turned out to be the sister-in-law of Isabel Lopez of Denver – and Lopez turns out to be a niece of Ortiz.
The sister-in-law mentioned the message in passing in May, and Lopez responded.
“It’s all kind of an amazing story,” Lopez said. “These two men have looked so hard and so long for us, and we had no idea.”
Lopez never met Ortiz, but she’s heard the stories.
He was David Solomon Ortiz, one of 11 children born to Louisa – Louisita in the newspaper – and Ramon Ortiz, who died in 1936, in Ocate, a small ranching and farming community about 23 miles northwest of Wagon Mound. All five Ortiz sons were known for their sense of humor and charm, but it was David who was the most popular of them all, she said.
“They just adored him,” she said. “He was the dandy of the family, and all the girls were after him.”
He was engaged to a young woman named Stella from Taos before he enlisted, like his brothers.
Unlike his brothers, he did not make it home alive.
“They loved him so much that it hurt too much to talk about him after that,” she said. “My mother hated the sound of Taps because of David.”
Ortiz’s mother and siblings are long gone. What remains are many nieces and nephews, their children and grandchildren, scattered across the country, including in Albuquerque. Only the oldest cousin remembers meeting David, though she was but a toddler.
This July 23, some of those relatives will converge at the Santa Fe National Cemetery to honor Pfc. Ortiz, and to meet Overley and Billingham, who will present the family with the dog tag.
“After two years, I feel like I know Pfc. Ortiz,” Overley said. “And I know this is where this dog tag, this little part of him, belongs.”
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.