It was hard enough losing their Uncle Marv, a widowed farmer and World War II vet from Burt County, in 2005. But a dozen years later, they learned they'd lost some of his military memories.
For years, Don and Beth Landholm had traveled every month from Omaha to Oakland to clean Marvin Landholm's apartment and take him to dinner, in Fremont or West Point.
They’d drive him through the countryside so he could see how the crops were doing.
And they’d listen to his stories. “I wish we had recorded them," Beth said. "He had been holding in all those memories until the last several years of his life when they came pouring out — with tears.”
Marv had become a father figure to Don, so they were like his next of kin. They ended up with what he had saved from his military service — preserved in two shadow boxes and two frames. His uniform coat and hat, 10 medals and ribbons, his separation paper and a photograph of his battalion. Beth could easily pick him out from the sea of young faces.
But in 2009, the couple was downsizing, getting ready to retire to Tennessee to be closer to their daughters. They started searching for an appropriate home for Uncle Marv's Army collection.
“We were looking for some connection to the military, a place where military things were displayed,” Beth said. “But not just anyplace.”
They found it in the old Happy Chef, along the interstate near Greenwood.
Joe Meehan had spent decades collecting World War II memorabilia — tens of thousands of pieces, from books to bayonets, boots to blankets, ribbons to rifles. He bought five Jeeps and a 900-pound dog tag machine.
They filled his garage and outbuildings until he and his longtime companion opened their museum in 2003, meeting guests from all 50 states and dozens of countries by day, sleeping in their nearby RV at night.
“We spent all day there, just visiting with him and him telling us stories,” Beth said. “He took a personal interest. Don and I kind of looked at each other and said, 'This seems like the place.’”
They invited Meehan out to their car, where they showed him Uncle Marv's memories. They told him they wanted to donate them all to the museum.
Meehan was grateful and the couple left satisfied, believing they'd found the perfect home. “Where they would stay in Nebraska with all the family members that would come and see it whenever they wanted to,” Beth said.
They didn't think much more about it until last month, when they read a Journal Star story from July about Meehan auctioning off his collection from the museum that he'd closed in 2012.
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Meehan’s collection kept the auctioneer busy. He'd collected so many items — instead of buying one bayonet, he’d buy 100 — the sale took place over three days, with two auction rings going at the same time.
Randy Fleming had pulled the collection out of storage, sorted it and helped haul it to the auction in Waverly.
But Fleming was also Meehan’s friend, and he’d been making regular trips to the retirement home where Meehan is fighting cancer.
A few states away, news of the auction had Beth and Don thinking about their Uncle Marv again. He had been one of 11 children, served in Europe during the war, married Eunice in 1947 and lost her in 1979. They grew closer to him after Don’s own father died.
They were also saddened to hear about Meehan's health problems, and troubled his museum had been allowed to close.
“What really upset me is the town didn't try to keep it,” Beth said. “It seems like Greenwood is kind of off the map, and this World War II museum would have really been beneficial to the whole community, I would think.”
They wondered what had become of their uncle’s military keepsakes.
“We thought they were in good hands,” she said. “And we didn't have any clue.”
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But they did have an idea: They’d try to find the items and get them home, to the VFW in Oakland, even if they had to pay for them.
They contacted the paper, and then the auctioneer. They were surprised by what he had to tell them.
Before the sale, Fleming had set aside two pieces. They seemed too personal to sell. He’d noticed someone had included a soldier's photo in the shadow box containing the coat and hat. So Fleming held that back, along with the framed discharge paper.
He didn't have to. “Joe had the rights to sell them,” Fleming said. “But I thought, someone took the effort to put his picture on it, and not everybody does that.”
He was able to reunite Beth and Don’s niece with the two items, and they were returned to Burt County last week.
“The other two pieces they’re looking for, I don’t know where they’d be,” Fleming said.
The horizontal framed photo, taken in 1944, has a plaque identifying it as the 959th Field Artillery Battalion. The shadow box holds a half-dozen medals and four ribbons, with notes about each.
Beth hasn’t given up trying to get them home.
“They will be where Marvin lived … and everyone knows who he was,” she said. “A real hometown hero who served his country with all his heart.”