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Marine starts organization to locate family of found purple hearts, reunites one from Iwo Jima

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Purple heart ceremony

Seventy-one years after he died in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, Edward Gengler was reunited with his brother during a moving ceremony Saturday morning.

The family became separated from the Purple Heart awarded after Marine Pfc. Edward Gengler was killed by mortar fire on Iwo Jima, just days after the iconic flag-raising in 1945.

The Purple Heart was discovered for sale in Detroit earlier this year. A volunteer organization linked the medal to Edward Gengler and returned it to his 91-year-old brother, Karl Gengler – himself a WWII Marine at his Mequon home.

“On behalf of a grateful nation, we’re sorry for the loss of your brother,” said Army Maj. Zac Fike, the founder and CEO of Purple Hearts Reunited. “It’s an honor to bring this medal back home to you.”

The medal was framed along with several other World War II medals, a photograph of Edward Gengler and a certificate issued with the Purple Heart. As memories flooded back, it brought Karl Gengler to tears.

“I’m proud of my brother because he fought for our country,” he said. “My brother was a good Marine. He loved the Corps. He was engaged to a girl and they were going to be married – and his life was cut out.

“The thing that broke my heart most of all is that my mother never really forgot,” he added. “I think she was crying the day she died over my brother’s death.”

Edward Gengler was a 23-year-old Marine attempting to resupply the front lines with ammunition when he was killed alongside a buddy from boot camp March 2, 1945, just days after he witnessed six fellow Marines raise the flag atop Mount Suribachi. Joe Rosenthal’s photo is one of the most famous images of World War II.

He originally was buried on Iwo Jima. After the war, his family brought him home. He now is buried in the First Baptist Cemetery in Pound, which is west of Marinette.

Karl Gengler, also a Marine private, said he suspected something was amiss because he hadn’t heard from his older brother for a while. While training on Guam for an invasion, he was called into the commander’s tent.

“He said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but your brother was killed on Iwo Jima,'” Karl Gengler said. “I started to cry and I finally got myself back together again. He said to me, ‘I can’t discharge you. I need you.’ I said to him, ‘I wouldn’t take a discharge. I’m going on with my guys.'”

Fike, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and now a full-time member of the Vermont Army National Guard, started working on returning Purple Hearts after his mother came across one in an antique shop in 2009 and paid $200 for it.

Since then, he and fellow volunteers have succeeded in returning nearly 300 Purple Hearts, many of which they have purchased off of the internet or in pawn shops or antique stores.

“At any given time, I’m bidding on about seven medals,” Fike said. “It’s sad, but it’s a reality.”

Others are mailed to him by individuals who have found them and heard about the organization, often due to media reports that follow return ceremonies. Fike currently has about 70 medals that he’s linking to families. Edward Gengler’s Purple Heart was one of four returned in Wisconsin over the weekend.

While every reunion is deeply personal, Fike said that Edward Gengler’s sacrifice on Iwo Jima was significant.

“Edward fought in a famous battle,” Fike said. “The men at Iwo Jima could be responsible for our freedom today. It was the bloodiest battle in history.

“All those men had were the men to their left and right. They fought to the very end,” he added. “Edward was one of those guys. He signed the check that no one wants to cash. He laid down his life for us.”

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