The first time Jacob Dechter received his medals of honor for service during World War II, there wasn’t much fanfare. They came in the mail, he said, with nice letters, but there was no ceremony.
The second time, last month, drew more attention as two employees of an Arizona electronics firm — surrounded by news cameras — returned them following a delivery mishap.
In between lies a tale of an ex-Marine who got the wrong package, a hero who voluntarily risked his life on behalf of his adopted country, and the genealogist who brought them together.
It’s a story of loyalty among veterans, but also of the wonders made possible by the combination of dedication and increasingly easy access to public records.
Dechter immigrated here from Argentina when he was 2, was among an estimated 500,000 Jews who served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II, serving as an infantryman in some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific. He was severely wounded in the head by a shrapnel blast, but later returned to service. After the war, he returned home to Brooklyn, raised a family and started a successful industrial pumps and boiler company on Long Island. He later retired in Boynton Beach, Fla.When his wife of 61 years, Jean, died last year he decided to move west, to be closer to his children in Arizona and California. In the process, he shipped 14 boxes to Scottsdale.
Only 13 made it there.
Dechter, 85, arrived in Arizona both mournful and frustrated by matters related to the sale of property in Florida. The missing box — containing his Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Pacific Service Medal and World War II Victory Medal — only added to his pain.
“I was a little beat up,” he said in an interview from his new home in Scottsdale. “You feel like people are trying to screw you at every chance. Then, you earn something with your body and your guts and it just disappears.”
Somehow, UPS delivered the box containing Dechter’s service medals to the Arrow Wire and Cable Company in Phoenix, confounding two employees, Bob Brenner and Scott Andrews.
As weeks went by, Brenner and Andrews were frantically searching phone directories and the Internet for Dechter or his family in order to return the medals. They sought the help of Arizona Sen. John McCain and turned to a local news station. CNN later picked up the story. “Come get your medals,” Andrews said via the TV reporter. “I want to know your story.”
While no clues about Dechter came in, one viewer, Renae Larsen, was intrigued enough to embark on her own odyssey. But as an experienced genealogist she had the skills, and access to millions of online records, to make some progress.
“Since he had an uncommon name, I knew I could access some records,” recalls Larsen, an account analyst with an appliance company in Tempe who says she is addicted to genealogy as a hobby. “First I located his army enlistment records.” The date of birth matched that of the only other Jacob Dechter listed in public birth records. Soon, Larsen, had located his residence in Florida. Reasoning that the medals were either being shipped to his children or, more correctly, that he was moving to the area where the package was received, she located a Florida real estate transaction that took place in February, around the time the medals were shipped. A document included his new address, and Larsen found a phone number by looking up the owner of that property, who turned out to be Dechter’s daughter, Irene.
She forwarded the information to Larsen one day after the news broadcast.
“It turned my attitude back, that there was something good left in the world,” said Dechter. “One of the only good things to happen to me recently was meeting these two young guys that went through so much trouble for six weeks.”
When Dechter asked how he could compensate the men for their efforts, they said “All we want is to shake hands with someone who did something like this for our country.” It was a far cry from his service days when, he recalls, “the Marines and the Army didn’t get along too good” and encounters were far less cordial.
“Mr. Dechter was exactly as expected,” said Brenner, a security consultant at Arrow. He and Andrews “were both glad that he was still in very good health with all of his senses. A very nice man and sharp as a tack.”
The visit from Brenner and Andrews was well timed, says Dechter’s daughter, Irene Mieszcanski. “Two days later was my parents’ anniversary,” she said. “This gave him something to renew his faith and really cheered him up.”
Dechter wasn’t even a U.S. citizen at the time he took up arms for the country, assigned to the 169th infantry. That came two years into his service. An American consul contacted Dechter’s commanding officer when he was stationed in New Zealand and asked if he was worthy of citizenship. The superior officer’s reply, according to Dechter: “This guy was almost killed over here. What do you want to do? Send him back?”
While he wasn’t drafted, Dechter said, “I wanted to go. I thought my country gave me a chance to live, to be educated … I owed this country something.”
Although she chose not to be there when Dechter got his medals back, Larsen said she was proud that her research bore fruit. “I felt strongly that I had the ability to locate him,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I just had to start back in time with his military history and move forward. I enjoyed seeing the follow-up newscast where he got his medals. How much better does it get?”