LAKEWOOD RANCH — After retracing the steps of an uncle he’d never met, Lakewood Ranch resident Russ Wilkins realized his 30 years of research couldn’t sit on a bookshelf in his family’s home.
“I had a story that I needed to tell,” Wilkins said. “A lot of people aren’t aware that there are more than 70,000 Americans missing from World War II.”
Americans such as Wilkins’ uncle, Elliott Russell Lund, who died during the war.
Wilkins’ book, “Missing in Belgium,” tells the story of World War II and of Lund, a paratrooper who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was taken as a prisoner of war and died in service. Lund’s body was sent home in 1950, but even now, there are questions as to whether it was actually his body that returned home.
During the war, churches would provide soldiers with pocket Bibles. And in 1992, Uncle Lund’s Bible arrived by mail from Belgium. It had been in a museum there after being found on the body of a dead American soldier immediately after the Battle of the Bulge. The fact begged a new question: Did Uncle Lund get taken as a prisoner of war and die just before the war’s end as his family had believed for so many years or was his body left behind at the Battle of the Bulge where his Bible was found?
Lund cannot say for certain, but his book explores the possibilities surrounding his uncle’s death while raising awareness that the bodies of so many American soldiers were never found.
Wilkins never expected to write a book on the topic, especially when he started doing World War II research in the late 1970s. At the time, Wilkins was stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army.
“I never knew my uncle,” Wilkins said. “It was my mother’s brother. She was really close to him growing up and she never really knew what happened. It was just one of those things that out of curiosity, I just started doing research to see if I could retrace his steps.”
Wilkins started his research at U.S. military bases oversees and local bookstores, and later, the Internet.
“I just started reading out of curiosity and accumulating information,” he said. “It was like putting a puzzle together. To make a long story short, one day I just looked at this box (of information) and realized I had enough information to write a book.”
At first, Wilkins thought his writings would stay within the family. But the deeper he became in his venture, the more he realized that the story of World War II veterans and the soldiers who are still missing needed to be told.
The project took about one-and-one-half years to complete.
Since the book released in December, Wilkins has received phone calls and letters from veterans throughout the United States, thanking him for putting their experiences into words.
“There’s not a lot of (World War II veterans) left, and they feel like their story needs to be told,” Wilkins said. “For a lot of those guys, I’m the means for them to tell their story. I’m glad I did it.”
Wilkins said he has been promoting “Missing in Belgium” primarily through veterans’ magazines and organizations since publication began.
The book is available locally at Lakewood Ranch Booksellers.
Contact Pam McTeer at [email protected].