Jolie Stewart is a trained investigator who has worked on some of the biggest cases for the Kaufman County Sheriff's Office. But over the last year, and sporadically throughout her career, she also worked on a deeply personal investigation - the story of the life and death of the grandfather she never met.
"We know he was killed in Germany and that was it, buried in Belgium," she said of the World War II stories she was told throughout her childhood. "He was in the tank, and I mean, that was kind of it."
His name was Philip Schnitzius, an Army corporal who died decades before Jolie was born. Even so, as a kid, her questions began.
"I asked my dad where his dad was. And he told me he was killed in the war. And I didn't really understand what killed in the war meant."
But as she grew, her curiosity did too, especially in conversations with her widowed grandmother whose picture she keeps on her office wall.
"I knew it hurt her to talk about it," she said. "We just didn't talk about him a whole lot. So, I mean, when I say I drove people crazy, I really did, asking these same questions."
So more than a year ago, armed with a lifetime of questions, a trained investigator set out to find the rest of her grandfather's story.
She had his letters and the limited detail he could provide from his posts on the front lines in Europe. She had his voice, most of it in song, on a collection of scratchy vinyl records he recorded with friends and family. What she did not have was the complete story of how he died.
"It was a difficult paper trail for sure," she said.
She found detailed Army records, "after action reports" that provided some information on where the 774th Tank Battalion traveled.
"I would get the map out, and I would drop a pin in every place that they went...." she said.
Details that matched with his letters, that seemed to grow darker every day.
"That was a horrible, horrible time," Stewart said. "And he talks about how cold he is and how his hands are frozen, his feet are frozen. It made me sad."
Especially the letter he wrote on a cold clear night, watching naive fresh Army recruits marching to the front lines.
"But he knows that they are just hours away from death. And it was really sad. That that's how he saw a beautiful night. But I can't blame him," she said.
But a granddaughter wasn't the only one waiting for answers.
"You accepted what you were told and that was it," said Pat Schnitzius of Dallas, the only surviving sibling. He was Philip's little brother, and he’s been waiting a lifetime for answers too.
"No, I won't ever forget it. Won't ever forget it," he said.
Because even at 90 years old, you still remember the day your mom tells you your big brother is gone.
"She grabbed a hold of me and hugged me and told me about Phil, and it was a shock," he said.
"This always chokes me up," Jolie Stewart said as she detailed what else she was able to find.
In a random Google search, she found a website called Witness to War, a collection of oral histories offered by veterans. And she was drawn to the interview with a veteran named Andrew Carpenter.
"He said he's with Company A of the 774th Tank Battalion. And I mean my stomach did a flip. That's Philip's. That's where he was!" she said.
Hoping to get more information, Stewart contacted Emily Carley, the director of the Witness to War Foundation in Atlanta, a non-profit that records the war stories of combat veterans. And Andy Carpenter was a voice Carley was very familiar with. He was her grandfather. By coincidence, both women had grandfathers who served in the 774th.
The connection ran deeper.
Carley's additional research found that her grandfather was supposed to be in that same tank that day, but another man, William Klug, took his place as the tank commander. Klug was killed along with Philip Schnitzius on March 16, 1945. Emily Carley's grandfather was spared, and his interview on the Witness to War website led Jolie Stewart to the answers she was seeking.
"It was an incredible feeling to finally have an idea or know what exactly he went through because I'd never known before," Stewart said offering thanks to Emily Carley and the Witness to War Foundation.
But one more question for Jolie and her great uncle. Why travel so far back and dredge up so much pain? For a little brother, that answer is easy.
"To me, it kind of made me feel closer to him," Pat Schnitzius said.
Because these aren't just stories, they're family whose lives and sacrifices need to be remembered.
"I was proud of what he went through. Very proud of him," Schnitzius said.
"It's our history. And it's something we all should be very proud of, those men," Jolie Stewart said.
Men whose sacrifices aren't forgotten, sometimes thanks to a curious little girl just wanting to keep her granddaddy's memory alive.
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