The return Friday of World War II medals lost decades ago began in February, with a chance meeting between a retired Army infantryman and the owner of an Italian restaurant in Auburn.
Robert Egli's photo hangs there in the eatery, Sandra D's Italian Garden. He's a 20-something, confident-looking man with a sideways smile who's wearing a military uniform with insignia identifying him as an Army Ranger.
“I saw the picture on the wall – I'm Ranger-qualified – and it caught my eye,” Terrence Rausch said.
Rausch, of Des Moines, Iowa, and a friend were in town to visit the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum, and they stopped at the restaurant on Main Street for a meal. They had some great food, Rausch said, and met the daughter of the man in the photo, restaurateur Sandy Dillinger.
Conversation quickly turned to Egli's service. Dillinger said medals her late father earned – military awards presented to her in a short ceremony Friday by U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind. – had been missing for more than 30 years.
She now has them back, after Rausch urged her to reach out to the senator about recovering and returning the items.
“Hand to God, right place at the right time,” Rausch said of the meeting.
Egli, who died in 1985, was a member of the Sixth Army, a group Deputy U.S. Army Special Operations Command Historian Michael E. Krivdo called “one of the most daring U.S. Army Special Operations units of World War II” in an article published on the Army's website.
Egli served from 1940 to 1945 and helped save more than 500 Americans from a prison camp in the Philippines, his daughter said. For that, he was awarded a Bronze Star, which was among a handful of medals presented to Dillinger.
She said her father's uniform was taken to a dry cleaner, who removed the medals to launder the regalia. The uniform was placed into a box designed for wedding dresses – the only thing available at the time to preserve it – and it went untouched.
Years later, the box was opened, and the medals were gone.
“They probably forgot to put (the medals) back on,” Dillinger said, referring to the dry cleaner that was no longer in business when the uniform was removed from the box.
She contacted Young's office, and staffers worked with Department of Defense officials to track down records – some of which were lost in a fire in the 1970s – needed to get the medals back.
Young, Indiana's senior senator and a Marine veteran, said it's work he's happy to do. Securing medals for deserving military men and women or returning medals gone missing from those who have served honors their service, he said.
“This is especially important to me because, as a United States Marine, I have people who were very close to me who are no longer with us because they made the ultimate sacrifice,” Young said. “When I'm able to honor their service ... that's a special opportunity for me.”
Dillinger, who was joined at the presentation at her restaurant by family and members of the military, said the return of the medals honors the memory of her father and all who choose to serve.
“I always called my dad The Silent Man,” she said. “He didn't share a lot of (war) stories with me. He's the great man I always knew he was.”