Army medic Frank Kurzinger never made it home to tell his story. For all Del Riley knows, he may not have had any family left to hear it anyway.
But Riley was there when Kurzinger lost his life, in the predawn hours of a February morning in 1945. And with the help of Robert Harrison of Linn-Benton Community College, Riley now has a rubbing from Kurzinger's gravestone in the American cemetery near Florence, Italy.
As far as he knows, Riley is now the sole keeper of Kurzinger's story — but if any of his fellow soldier's family still remains, he'd like to pass it on.
"He was coming to help me and got killed trying," Riley said. "It was one of the most important things I've ever been involved in."
Riley and Harrison met last spring when Harrison invited the Army veteran, 92, to speak to the students in his college class on World War II.
Riley talked about his time with the 10th Mountain Division, an elite unit of men trained specifically for winter warfare and mountain terrain.
Harrison mentioned he'd be taking a group of students to Italy this summer as part of a Renaissance art tour and said he'd be near Florence. In that case, Riley asked, would it be possible for Harrison's group to visit the American cemetery there? And possibly track down Kurzinger's resting place?
And then he told Harrison the story.
Riley was 19 in 1945. He arrived in Naples, Italy, on Jan. 13, having wrapped up a year's worth of training for mountain combat. He was assigned to C Company, 85th Regiment, 10th Mountain Division. So was Frank Kurzinger, who was coming from training in Colorado.
Kurzinger was only a year older than Riley, but he seemed much more grown up, Riley remembered. He was German, and Jewish, and had escaped from his home country in the late 1930s before the Nazis got a stranglehold on the population. If he came with family, or met family in the States, he didn't talk about it.
He was a regular-looking guy, Riley said; a little on the husky side, maybe, but not fat. Maybe stood about 5 foot 9 or 10. Brown hair, brown eyes. Soft-spoken and quiet, he seemed intellectual, or maybe just philosophical. "I always wondered if he wasn't a student," Riley said.
Kurzinger wanted to serve with the Army but was concerned about being sent back to Europe, where he might be put in the position of shooting at someone from his homeland. That's why he became a medic, Riley knew.
He also worried he could be captured as an escapee and a traitor — and a Jew, to boot. "If I get caught there, I'll be tortured for the rest of my life," Riley remembers Kurzinger saying. "The thing he told us more than once: 'Don't ever let them capture me.'"
Nervous as he was about the assignment, Kurzinger cared about his fellow soldiers, Riley remembered, treating blisters and other complaints during further training in Texas. "He kinda mothered us, or big-brothered us," Riley remembered.
The unit arrived in Naples, Italy on Jan. 13, 1945 aboard the USS West Point, outrunning a submarine on their trip. That day in February, they were to take out the Germans who had dug in atop Mount Belvedere.
The commanding officer didn't mince words about the assignment. Two different divisions had already failed in their assault on the same grounds, he said. The Germans had been there for a year and were well fortified with both goods and guns. Trip wires and mines booby-trapped the area. A good third of the U.S. soldiers likely were going down, and anyone caught wouldn't make it back, either: The Germans took no prisoners.
"Even though we were trained to go to war, that was a tough one to handle," Riley remembered. "We're looking: Which one of us is going to pay ...?"
To add to the misery, the unit's shipment of goods was late, leaving just one blanket each for each soldier, in spite of sleeping in the snow, Riley recalled. On top of everything else, the officers decided the attack would be after midnight on Feb. 20, and the soldiers would be armed only with bayonets and hand grenades so their position couldn't be determined by gunfire.
Riley was the second scout up the mountain, following a trail behind Les Green, who was some six years his senior. It was dark and they didn't know where they were, how far they'd gone or where the Germans were hiding.
The Germans didn't know where they were, either, but they knew the paths most likely to be taken, and every one was trapped. It was almost inevitable that one of them would hit a wire. It turned out to be Green.
The explosion ripped off the calf of Green's left leg and sent a blazing piece of shrapnel through Riley's right femur — or so he assumes; he remembers somersaulting through the dark and may have hit another wire or mine in the process. As the Germans began sending mortars in their direction, both dropped to a crawl to try to get away.
It was pitch black, freezing and snowy, but, Riley recalled, "Fortunately, there was a big old rock." The two got behind it and used a belt to tie off Green's leg in an attempt to stop the bleeding. The cold helped, he said: Green's bleeding slowed, and Riley's own wound had been cauterized at the entry point by the heated shrapnel.
The Germans knew roughly where the two were holed up, and one would ricochet machine gun bullets off the rock every once in a while to discourage them from scooting away. Neither could walk anyway, so they just sat tight and waited for the medics.
Kurzinger was on his way. Riley could see him in the darkness; knew the red cross on his helmet.
"We saw him a ways away. And I called him," Riley said.
Riley stops at this point in the story, breath hitching. There is silence for some time.
"The last thing he said: 'I'll be right over,'" he continued. "He walked into that minefield and went sky-high.
"To this day, I wonder, if I hadn't called him, would he still be alive?"
The rest of the soldiers were on their way, however, and some of them managed to get to the rock with a litter. Green "was looking plumb puny," Riley recalled, so he sent his buddy off first.
Another medic gave Riley a shot of morphine; stuff so powerful he wrote the time of the injection on Riley's forehead in iodine so another medic wouldn't double the dose. Dawn was breaking by then, and in spite of the American planes strafing the site — "Planes at 500 yards; looked like I could reach out and touch the wheels," Riley said — the morphine put him to sleep. By the time another medic reached him to take him out, about 1 in the afternoon, he was still passed out.
The medic got Riley to a Jeep, then lay him directly across the windshield, telling him to hang onto the Jeep's passenger to stay on board. With no real trail to follow, the Jeep four-wheeled it down the mountain, over rocks and around trees, mortars still flying, until it could get Riley to an evac hospital.
"'Course I'm still groggy from the morphine," he added. "I didn't much care what was going on."
He cared even less after getting to the doctor, who immediately gave him a good-sized glass of Scotch. "My land, I was back out of my misery in a hurry with that," Riley said.
Riley doesn't have a lot of information about what happened after that. He traveled home on a hospital ship on St. Patrick's Day, 1945. He received the Purple Heart for his actions, but his wound developed a bone infection called osteomyelitis, which forces him to change dressings and take antibiotics to this day.
Green survived, but Riley doesn't know his whereabouts or whether the older man is still around. No one else saw Kurzinger die. "I'm the only one who knows the story," he said.
In later years, Riley's son, Mark, helped him track Kurzinger's remains to a gravesite at the Florence American Cemetery. Although Riley has been in Europe since his two and a half years of service, he hasn't made it to the cemetery himself.
So when he learned of Harrison's plans, he asked: Could you visit? Would you take a rubbing for me?
Harrison did. He and eight students visited this past July 3. He had been there before and knew the caretaker, who was glad to help him track down Kurzinger.
The raised white cross bears the words, "In memory of Frank T. Kurzinger, Private 1st Class, U.S. Army, 85th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, Feb. 20, 1945." And it bears a quote from General John Pershing: "Time will not diminish the glory of their deeds."
The cemetery's caretaker presented Harrison with a small American flag to give to Riley, the flag that had been put on Kurzinger's grave on Memorial Day. And he placed a small Italian flag near the grave so Harrison could take a picture: "That's what we do for friends of the family," the caretaker explained.
"The reverence with which they treat those remains just inspired me," Harrison said. "We don't always have proud moments in this country, but you see what Americans did for these people."
It's possible no one had ever visited Kurzinger's grave before he came, Harrison said. Riley has not yet found anyone with a connection to his fellow soldier.
Time may not diminish the glory, but it could erase the last traces of the story, and for Kurzinger's sake, Riley is determined that won't happen.
"I always felt he gave his all to try to help us," he said. "I wanted his family to know."