After 70 years, a WWII prayer book is back with its owner

Bob Serafin with World War II prayer book.

Bob Serafin holds his World War II prayer book. I took the photo on April 30.

World War II holds countless mysteries. Here’s a small one that had a big impact on a former soldier I know:

Last November I got an email from a Susan Senger in Minneapolis. While cleaning out a bookcase, she found a decades-old little book, a Prayer Book for Catholic Servicemen. It had a signature in the back, Robert E. Serafin, and an Army serial number. She didn’t recognize the name, so she did a Web search and got a hit.

Susan found that in May 2002, I had done an interview with a Robert E. Serafin as part of my “War Stories: In Their Own Words” series in The Morning Call. Some 100 of these stories going back to 1999 have a permanent home on the newspaper’s website at http://www.mcall.com/warstories.

A career soldier, Bob had served in both World War II and the Vietnam War. You can read my interview with him here: http://www.mcall.com/news/all-robertserafin-story.html#page=1

Susan wrote that if she’d found the right Robert Serafin, she’d like to send him the prayer book.

Right away I was certain that the Bob I knew was the one she was looking for. The first name, middle initial and last name matched. Bob had been in the Army. He was a Catholic.

But how did a prayer book he’d had in the 1940s turn up in a home in Minneapolis?

I emailed Susan the address and phone number of the assisted living facility in Allentown where Bob was a resident. She contacted the place, which put her in touch in with his son, who lives in Slatington.

The book was Bob’s. He was thrilled.

Susan put it in the mail for him Dec. 1 and included a letter offering information that might help determine why her family had it. She said she’d been cleaning out a bookcase that held books once belonging to her grandmother, Zella Rutledge, and her mother, Helen Rutledge. Helen, who was born in 1923, married Louis Smith in the 1940s, and the couple might have lived in Columbus, Ohio, for a while. They divorced and Helen married Susan’s dad, Robert Senger. He’d been in the Navy during World War II but never left the U.S. She thought he was on the West Coast.

Susan said Bob might have crossed paths with her uncle, Boyd A. Rutledge, known as “Bud” or “Buddy.” He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and held by the Germans at Stalag IX-B, a notorious prisoner-of-war camp near Bad Orb in Hesse, Germany.

“I have no idea how my family ended up with your prayer book,” Susan wrote.

Bob’s son, also named Bob, wrote back and thanked her on behalf of his grateful dad.

Bob Serafin as a soldier

Bob Serafin as a soldier

Last week I finally got around to visiting Bob, now 92 and still sharp. When I asked about the prayer book, he grinned and pulled it out of a drawer.

“It knocked me over,” he said about getting it back.

But he has no idea how it got to Minneapolis.

“I don’t know any of these guys,” he said of the names Susan mentioned. “I’ve never heard of this family, and I’ve never been to Minnesota. The closest I’ve been to Minnesota is Chicago.”

Bob came from Plains, just north of Wilkes-Barre. He said a Catholic priest gave him the prayer book in 1943 while he was in training at either Camp McCain in Mississippi or Camp Carson in Colorado. After that, he guarded German POWs in Colorado and Wyoming until the late summer of 1944, when he was reassigned as a hospital orderly. In February 1945 he landed in France as a corporal with a mobile hospital unit, the 84th Field Hospital, which followed the U.S. 1st Army deep into Germany.

Somewhere along the way, the book vanished.

“I don’t remember losing it or anything about it,” Bob said.

He wonders if it might somehow have gotten into Bud Rutledge’s hands at Stalag IX-B.

The book is less than a quarter-inch thick. It includes prayers for peace, for the civil authorities and for Pope Pius XII – the pontiff during World War II — as well as the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Act of Contrition. On the last page, Bob wrote his full name and serial number in ink.

In 1963, he went to Vietnam as a military police investigator, serving at the Criminal Investigation Division office in Saigon. He returned to Southeast Asia in 1966 as a CID agent in Thailand. In 1978 he retired as a chief warrant officer.

Susan’s contact with Bob was not the first time someone connected with him after seeing his story online. In January 2014, a man emailed me that he was doing research on letters his father wrote home while serving in the 84th Field Hospital.

“I’m trying to put all the pieces from the letters together and thought of reaching out to Mr. Serafin for any additional info he might have,” he wrote.

I told him where to find Bob, and Bob told me that the writer visited him.

How Bob’s prayer book changed hands, presumably during World War II, and turned up in Minneapolis might never be known. What’s important is, after 70 years and thanks to Susan Senger, he has it.

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