Ormond Beach resident Bob Baumer never met his uncle in person, but he’s spent 30 years piecing together his World War II story, a journey for Baumer that revolved around a purple heart medal.
Private First Class Robert Arthur Baummer enlisted in the army in 1940 at the age of 19. Known as Bobby to his family, he was a happy-go-lucky kid who had gotten himself in a bit of trouble, having shot out a streetlight with a BB gun, before deciding to join the military, one year before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He only expected to serve a year, but after the bombing, everything changed. He didn’t know it then, but he would play a part in history; part of the 1st Infantry Division, he was at Omaha Beach the morning of D-Day, and it was his battalion of him that aided in other soldiers being able to survive that battle.
I have left the beach that day. But three days later, Bobby was killed. He was 23.
It’s a story his nephew, Baumer, who was named after his uncle, has immortalized in the pages of his new book, titled, “The Journey of the Purple Heart.” The book tells Bobby’s story through the viewpoints of his friends from him, his company captain and others he served with, all of whom Baumer spent hours interviewing for past books on WWII. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he revisited the hours of tape, a “treasure trove” he said allowed him to tell his uncle’s story in a new way. This is his fourth book of him.
“Every person in the book was real, every event described took place,” Baumer said. “I created dialogue. To a reader, they would think, ‘You are him. You marched with him, at the very least. You saw the things he saw, you experienced the things he did…’ And it was an incredible journey for me to be able to do that.”
For Baumer, whose father dropped the second “m” in their last name, the journey began in a hospital room in 1990. His father had urged him to come see his 99-year-old Aunt Catherine, who was in her final hours. His aunt looked at Baumer and called him Bobby, confusing him for the brother she had lost during WWII.
Baumer’s father had never spoken about his brother to him. That day pushed Baumer to finally ask.
“He said, ‘He died on the beaches of Normandy,” Baumer recalled. “His words from him were, ‘What a waste.'”
And that’s when Baumer set out to prove him wrong — that his brother’s sacrifice hadn’t been a waste at all. He remembered the memory of seeing his uncle’s purple heart medal for the first time. He had been 12 years old, and his grandmother showed it to him. He remembers the way it glittered in the sunlight streaming in from the window.
Baumer then began researching, and in 1997, with the help of a senator in Connecticut, he was able to get access to more WWII service records, which had been challenging since the start as a 1973 fire in the Army Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, had destroyed many. The senator recommended he try researching morning reports, which kept a record of companies’ daily activities, including rosters of the killed and wounded.
It was through these reports that he was able to identify WWII veteran Paul E. Stegall in 1998. Stegall had served alongside Bobby in the war, and after finding a phone number and speaking to him one evening, Baumer realized that he’d not only found a fellow soldier of his uncle — he’d found his best friend.
Baumer at that point had the list of battles his uncle had fought in and other military details. But Stegall provided a missing link.
“I now had what I thought was the rest of the story,” Baumer said. “I called my mother and I said, ‘Mom, do you believe in miracles? You’re not going to believe this.”
The two finally met in 2017, and Baumer gifted him with his uncle’s purple heart medal. He hoped it would give him strength to keep fighting.
A few months later, Stegall died, but not before Baumer got on his motorcycle and drove from his Ormond Beach home to Greenville, South Carolina to see him one last time.
“He knew he didn’t have much time left, and so I said, ‘Well, then you’ll be with Bob,” Baumer recalled. “He just thought his head and I said, ‘You save a place for me up there, OK?’ He nodded his head. He died the next day, so I’m glad I did what I did.”
Bobby’s purple heart medal is back in Baumer’s possession, along with the flag that was placed on his grave during his funeral. Every Memorial Day, he carefully takes the wooden box out, opens it, and reads the names of all 1,513 service members who died in WWII. Looking at his uncle’s purple heart medal today, he thinks of sacrifice, pride and the missed opportunity of meeting his namesake of him.
“I wish I could have known him, but it wasn’t that way of course,” Baumer said. “… It’s an odd camaraderie I feel with him, but mostly, it’s a great deal of pride.”