PLACITAS, N.M. (KRQE) – This summer marks 75 years since the Invasion of Normandy, and while many families who lost a loved one have moved on, this anniversary will finally mean closure and new beginnings for one New Mexico family. Now, they are preparing for the reunion of a lifetime.
PFC. David Ortiz, a New Mexico native, died all those years ago on July 12, 1944 during the Battle of Saint-Lô. The 28-year-old was in the Second Infantry Division, landing in Normandy on June 7, 1944, one day after D-Day. Now, thanks to a man thousands of miles away, his family will have a piece of him to carry on his memory.
“As long as you remember, the person doesn’t die,” said Isabel Lopez, a niece of Ortiz. “I never got to know him personally, so I know him through family stories, through family pictures.”
Ortiz’s body was moved to Santa Fe National Cemetery in 1947 and the family continued to move forward through their loss. Flash forward to 2011, Ron Overley was documenting soldiers killed in Normandy, now interred in Santa Fe.
“In 2011, I was asked by a group to document the soldiers who were killed in the Normandy invasion who were buried at Santa Fe National Cemetery,” said Overley. “Kinda forgot about it until 2017 when I got an email from a gentleman in England, by the name of David Billingham.”
Billingham, a military historian working in Normandy, made quite the find. He reached out to Overley to see if he was a family member of Ortiz, since Overley’s name was attached to the photograph of Ortiz’s grave. Overley explained his connection and that he did not know Ortiz’s family.
“He went on to explain that he was a military historian doing work in the Normandy area in Saint-Lô which was a battle on July 11 and 12 of 1944,” said Overley. “And in doing some excavation work in a MASH field hospital, he found David Ortiz’s dog tags and wanted to return them to the family.”
Together, Billingham and Overley searched more than two years for any piece of the puzzle leading them to Ortiz’s family. They searched through records at the cemetery, state archives in Santa Fe and received help from the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, with no luck. Complicating the search, Ortiz’s military records were destroyed in the St. Louis Army Records Center fire in 1973. With no current next-of-kin listed in connection with Ortiz, including in his brief obituary through the Santa Fe newspaper, the search proved difficult, but today’s genealogy and DNA technology helped close the gap.
“We worked with the Santa Fe National Cemetery but they had no next-of-kin listed,” said Overley. “So for the last two years, David Billingham and I have been trying to find the relatives of David Ortiz so we could return his dog tag and close the story. And just a few months ago, we did find the family. David found them through Ancestry.”
Lopez says the selfless work of these men means the world to her family. The news of his dog tags brings up a number of emotions.
“Anything other than this man, looking for us and that he was committed to searching. So it was really emotional. It was very emotional,” said Lopez. “There’s the emotion of the family. There’s the emotion of the connection to an uncle who was loved. And then, there’s the emotion that someone cared enough to look that hard and that long and that consistently to find the family.”
Overley says it was an emotional experience for him, as well. Finally seeing a photo of Ortiz brought the experience full-circle.
“We had such an emotional connection to David but the real emotion came when Isabel Lopez emailed me a photo of David,” said Overley. “It was emotional to see we could finally put a face to a name I had known for a long time.”
Lopez says the dog tag will go to the next generation to a fellow “David” in the family, named after Ortiz, who will carry it on for future generations. It’s a new connection to an uncle she never knew and a new chapter to her family’s story.
“It will be given to a family member who is named David, young man who has a really big heart and a real connection to ancestors, and he will carry that forward. He will carry that memory forward,” said Lopez. “In some ways, before, it felt like an ending. And now, it feels like a new beginning.”
Later this month, Billingham, the man who found the dog tag, is flying to Santa Fe all the way from the UK to deliver it in person to the family. The family of Ortiz, along with Overley and Billingham, will then hold a private memorial service in Ortiz’s honor.