(Article by Patrick Whitehurst of The Daily Courier)
There are those who believe everything happens for a reason. If true, U.S. Marine Corps veterans Lee Paul, 88, and Lee Dortsch, 91, were destined to meet. But, while both served in World War II, both landed on Iwo Jima on the same day, and both had the same commanding officer, they never met at the time. That changed last week, however, when the two met at the Prescott campus of Northern Arizona Veterans Affairs.
And it all happened because of a hat.
Technically, the hat is called a 'cover,' Paul explained, and not a typical one either. In fact, he said, that style of cover has not been issued since the 1940s.
Paul and a group of local veterans meet regularly for coffee in Chino Valley at the Checkered Apron restaurant. Fellow veteran Jimmy Whited, the former owner of a Chino Valley pawnshop, came into possession of an old service hat, the cover in question, that he gave to Paul.
"I had a cover that was given to me years ago. I wanted Lee to have it," Whited said.
Who originally gave Whited the hat, however, remains a mystery.
"A man, a stranger, brought it in and knew I was an ex-Marine. He said I would appreciate the cover," Whited said.
"It's an old one, the old herringbone, which they haven't issued since the 1940s. That one was issued in 1942," Paul said.
After receiving the gift, Paul wore it to the unofficial group's regular coffee meeting on the following Tuesday. It was there the group examined the name, "Lee Dortsch, Private, USMC," written inside. Paul mentioned to the group his plans to go online to see if he could learn the whereabouts of the original owner.
Veteran Ron Bursch, part of the coffee group, overheard the name and asked to see the hat in question.
"He said he knew the man," Paul said.
Surprisingly, Bursch explained that Dortsch was in the Prescott VA's Community Living Center. It was then Paul decided he needed to meet the owner and assist in returning his cover.
"It was unbelievable," Paul said.
Last week, Paul and Dortsch met for the first time on the Prescott VA campus.
"It was really difficult to give it up, but after I met Lee I knew it should go to him," Paul explained. "He was very happy to get it back. We almost came to tears."
The two got to talking, where they learned that both served in the Marines at Iwo Jima in Company C, First Battalion, 26th regiment. Paul himself was attached to the First Battalion, 26th regiment where he served as a specialist naval gunfire radio operator.
"We went in on the same beach, on the same day, and probably at about the same time, but I can't verify that," Paul said. "We had quite a time talking about that."
Dortsch was wounded by a bayonet in Guadalcanal before the Iwo Jima landing. He also served as a fighter pilot in the Korean War and the Vietnam War.