CAMP ROBERTS, Calif. — Crews demolishing old military barracks on this sprawling base near Paso Robles stumbled on a surprising find: wallets.
Tumbling out of heating ducts suspended from the ceilings, the wallets were stuffed with remarkably well-preserved personal belongings dating from World War II and the Korean War.
Love letters. Religious medals. Base passes. High school identification cards. Driver's licenses. Dog tags. Snapshots. Tips for surviving an atomic blast.
The only thing missing was money.
The discovery posed unusual challenges for officials at the former Army base, now used by the California Army National Guard: How did the wallets get there? And could these leather-bound time capsules be returned to their owners?
An intensive search for clues among the wallets' contents, and for addresses and phone numbers of owners now in their golden years — or deceased — has reunited all but three of 25 wallets with their owners or relatives. And the work has yielded at least one theory about how they got there in the first place:
"The fact that there is no money in any of these wallets leads us to believe they were stolen," said California Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Tom Murotake. "The thefts usually involved a trusting guy from a small town who set his wallet down, then got distracted.
"Someone else, in one fluid motion, nabbed the wallet, snatched the cash and chucked the rest into the heating duct overhead."
Over the decades, the heat turned the leather into something resembling beef jerky, but left everything inside intact.
Murotake, who is in charge of tracking down the owners, said the wallets become instant "touchstones," jolting memories back to a grueling and uncertain time when thousands of recruits converged at the base for 13 weeks of basic training. From there, they were shipped out to the front lines in Europe, the Pacific and Asia, a few without their cherished photos and pocket keepsakes.
Looking inside these wallets captures a glimpse of what life was like in the 63-man barracks on the 43,000-acre base straddling Highway 101, once the world's largest infantry and field artillery training center.
Willard Groth was an Army private preparing to visit a cousin in Bakersfield when the wallet he kept in a barracks footlocker vanished one day in 1944.
"It had $20 in it, which I needed for the trip," recalled Groth, 81, of Hoyt Lakes, Minn. "No one else had any money to loan, so I stayed on the base that day."
Groth was stunned when Murotake called him in late 2003. "I have your wallet, the one you lost six decades ago. It's ragged, but still holding together," he said.
Inside was a crumbling draft card, an American Legion hospitality card, a Social Security card and a tarnished dime minted in 1935. "I've decided not to polish that old dime," Groth said. "It's good to remember what you can from that long ago."
As for the reddish-brown wallet, embossed with a rising sun and with his name inscribed in gold letters, Groth said, "I put it away. My kids will find it when they dig through my junk someday."
To walk among the base's 300 two-story abandoned barracks today is to step into the past. Roads that once teemed with soldiers and 2-ton trucks after the attack on Pearl Harbor are now choked with weeds.
Inside the buildings are beds, mattresses and pillows unused for decades. Windows are broken, and floors are caked with dust and crisscrossed with the tracks of raccoons and mice.
All of the barracks, which contain lead-based paint and asbestos, are to be torn down.
In some barracks, the heating ducts have been pried off their hinges, indicating that others may have heard about the wallets. "Call it 'Raiders of the Lost Ducts,' " Murotake joshed during a tour of the facilities.
Murotake calls the three unclaimed wallets his "cold cases."
One belongs to Joe Dean Hougland, a 73-year-old man Murotake described as a "Crocodile Dundee-type believed to be wandering the desert between Arizona and Mexico."
Another belonged to Perfecto Pacheco, who was 54 when he died in 1984 in Puerto Rico. Murotake continues to search for relatives who might want the wallet, a wad of letters, religious medals, military documents, meal cards, passes and snapshots.
One photo was from his mother, Panchita, who wrote a note on the back in Spanish: A mi querido hijo, con todo el cariño de tu madre que no te olvida. To my beloved son, with all the love of your mother, who doesn't forget you.
Each wallet has a story to tell, and Murotake has his favorites.
Take the romance tucked inside the glassine pouches of a wallet taken from Patrick John McElholm, of Bellingham, Wash., during the Korean War.
McElholm's wallet had pictures and letters from a sweetheart. Her name was Barbara Nolde, a woman with dark hair, big eyes and a sunny smile.
In the first letter, "this woman went through the trouble of writing intensely personal things about her love, devotion and desire to spend the rest of her life with this man," Murotake said. "His response was that she should try to live as normal a life as possible while he was away."
Nolde's next letter announced that she planned to attend a dance. McElholm was not happy, but appreciated her honesty.
In a final letter, Nolde wrote: "I guess you'd have been better off if I had never told you."
"I just had to find out how the story ended," Murotake said.
In 2002, he began searching the Internet and discovered that McElholm was killed in action in Korea on Sept. 5, 1952. He was 21.
An article about McElholm's wallet was published in a Bellingham newspaper.
"I got e-mail from people who knew this woman," Murotake said. "Turns out she later married. But a framed photograph of Patrick held a prominent place on her mantelpiece until she died in 1992."
Robert Morning of Rialto thought it was a case of mistaken identity when Murotake called to say he wanted to return remnants of a wallet apparently stolen here 48 years ago.
Then Murotake came knocking on a recent Sunday with a driver's license stating Morning's age as 16 and his hometown as "Hollydale, Calif.," a mailing address in South Gate that no longer exists.
"Yeah, that's me," said Morning, 64, sorting through mementos accumulated when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. "This is bringing back a lot of memories."
Except one: How did his wallet end up at Camp Roberts?
"I've never been to Camp Roberts," he insisted, "and I have no idea how my wallet got there."
Morning's wallet was one of Murotake's cold cases until private investigator Edward J. Zemaitis, a volunteer in the effort to return the wallets, recently came up with a phone number and address.
On his living room couch, Morning, who breathes with the help of an oxygen tank and copes with the lingering effects of a mild stroke, lifted the returned items, one by one.
"This, I'm going to keep," he said, marveling over his bright red-and-blue Social Security card. "It looks like it just came off the typewriter."
Morning, who used to complain that he had nothing interesting to say to his four grown children, has been filling their ears with memories. "This has been a real boost for Bob," said Morning's wife, Maxine, trying not to cry. "It's as though a piece of time has come back to greet him again with memories of the old days, and better times."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times