The widow of war hero Warren McCauley received a very special gift this Christmas — a silver ID bracelet that her beloved husband and family patriarch left behind in Italy exactly 70 years ago.
McCauley, a Kansan who was awarded a Bronze Star for his heroism fighting the Germans in Italy during World War II, wore a silver bracelet bearing his serial number on the plaque.
The bracelet, which was a gift from his family, was not only a fashionable piece of jewelry, but it also had the practical purpose of helping to identify the soldiers who perished in battle.
The 19-year-old became a decorated member of the elite 10th Mountain Division. After the Germans' surrender, he returned home safely, but his bracelet didn’t make the trip. Instead, it stayed behind in Italy in the possession of a 10-year-old Italian girl named Bruna de Maria.
Bruna’s parents had made their home available as a field hospital and canteen, where they helped care for tired and wounded American soldiers.
It’s not clear whether her parents were gifted the bracelet by McCauley when he and fellow soldiers accepted the de Maria’s hospitality in the small town of Castel D'Aiano, or whether the bracelet was found nearby, but young Bruna saw the bracelet displayed in her family’s glass-front cabinet and decided to make it her own.
"I just took it," she told NBC Nightly News in a story broadcast on Saturday. "I was very poor, so a bracelet for me was a treasure."
She cherished the bracelet and kept it safely in the drawer of her night table — for the next 70 years.
In September, Bruna gave the bracelet to her son, Stefano. He knew right away that he needed to make the effort to get the bracelet back into the hands of the family of its original owner.
"This bracelet made history," he told NBC News. "It belonged to an American soldier who came here to fight, to defend our country. That's why I thought of giving it back."
His internet research came up empty when he mistook the maker of the bracelet for the soldier’s name. He also sought the help of the American consulate in Milan, but that, too, was unsuccessful.
By a brilliant stroke of luck, Stefano showed the bracelet to a dinner guest who had a lawyer friend in Oklahoma. The lawyer contacted an NBC News journalist, who, in turn, contacted the official archivist for the 10th Mountain Division. Bingo.
The serial number on the bracelet was linked to Warren D. McCauley, his last known address in Buena Vista, Calif., and his wife, Twila.
Right in time for Christmas, the bracelet was on its way back to the McCauley family.
The 85-year-old Twila could barely contain her emotions when she opened a small pouch that contained the bracelet of her beloved husband, who had passed away in 1986.
"It’s come back to us," Twila told NBC News.
In her living room, surrounded by her extended family, Twila passed the bracelet around to four generations of McCauleys. The bracelet that none of them knew existed is now a precious direct link to the family patriarch who wore it while fighting for freedom so many years ago.
"I feel very emotional about it," Warren's eldest daughter, Dee Prophet, told NBC News. "It's a piece of him that we can all share, and treasure, and have back in the family."