MiddleBurg — Nancy Shilling never knew her father. She was just 18 months old when he was killed in World War II, and the only time he had seen her was when she was three weeks old and he returned home to Sunbury on leave.
So when she saw a letter two months ago from Esther Klinger of the Snyder County Historical Society telling her an off-duty detective in Wales had found her father’s silver bracelet, she was taken aback.
“I was just kind of shocked, and it came on Memorial Day weekend. I thought, how appropriate,” Shilling said on Sunday, after the historical society presented her with that very bracelet.
Shilling, who lives in Biglerville, Adams County, said she didn’t know what to believe when she read the letter, so she had to call Klinger, a historical society board member and assistant librarian.
“It was such a big surprise after all these years that something should come up like that that belonged to my father,” said Shilling, 76.
Her father, Albert E. Coleman, a Sunbury High School graduate, was killed in the Battle of the Bulge on Jan. 17, 1945, just 10 days after his 26th birthday, Shilling said in her comments to the crowd of about 60 at the historical society’s home in Middleburg.
Coleman had trained in Wales before he took part in “D-Day plus one day,” Shilling said. The detective, Colin Murphy, was searching with a metal detector on the grounds of Cresselly House on a large country estate in Pembrokeshire, a county in southwest Wales. He detected something and dug up the bracelet that was buried 6 inches beneath the ground.
Murphy said in an email the owner of the mansion told him the U.S. Army used the site during the war to train for battle with the Germans.
The bracelet bore Coleman’s name and serial number. It took Murphy several weeks, he said, to trace the soldier to Snyder County. He then sent the bracelet to the Snyder County Historical Society with a request the society give it to Coleman’s family.
Klinger said Coleman lived in Beavertown and Middleburg before moving to Sunbury as a child. After high school, he married Esther Irene Arbogast and they had a daughter. Coleman’s remains, originally buried in Belgium, were shipped to the United States after the war and buried in the Beavertown Cemetery. Shilling said during her talk that she remembers parts of the funeral, particularly the gun salute. She was 5 years old at the time.
The Beavertown-Beaver Springs American Legion, which provided military honors at Coleman’s burial, also provided the color guard for the ceremony on Sunday.
Shilling said that after her father’s death, her mother remarried, and Shilling’s name at the time was changed from Coleman to Burns.
“I just remember a lot of love and family,” she said. “We had a really good life. We were happy.”
When the historical society received the bracelet, Klinger and several others searched for family members, and society librarian Janet Walker and board member Pat Benfer located the grave in Beavertown, Klinger told the newspaper.
Klinger said Murphy asked for the historical society’s assistance in finding any living relatives.
“We used a lot newspapers, internet sites, anything that we could find,” Klinger said.
She found Shilling’s last known address in Biglerville from 2002.
“I took a leap of faith and I sent a letter, and amazingly on Memorial Day weekend, she called me, and that started a long friendship, I’m sure,” Klinger said after the program.
Some of Shilling’s relatives attended, including her brother, Leonard Burns, 71, of Manheim, who moved from Sunbury in 1956.
“When Nancy first called me about it, she said, ‘I almost feel I would be disrespecting Dad,’ ” Burns recalled, saying she was referring to her adoptive father and his biological father. “I told her, ‘If he was alive, he would drive you to get that bracelet.’ ”
Burns added, “I think it’s fantastic. I said (to Shilling), ‘I’m coming to pick you up. You’re going.’ ”
“She was very excited,” said Wayne Rodgers, of the Gettysburg area, Shilling’s friend for the past eight years. “It opened up a whole new chapter in her life.”
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