On a drizzly, overcast afternoon in March, a man walked through Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and fell to his knees in front of a simple stone marker.
A soldier's funeral was going on nearby, but the man had eyes only for one tombstone which identified the grave of Ernest L. Wrentmore, veteran of World War I, World War II and Korea. The back side of the stone states that Wrentmore had been the "youngest soldier to have served with American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, 12 years of age."
Tears filling his eyes, Ernest L. Wrentmore III ran his fingers softly over the marker, pressed his lips to the cold stone, and began whispering to the father he had waited so long to know.
"Afterward, I couldn't leave," Wrentmore, 43, recalled at his Lexington home last week. "I tried to leave three times and kept turning back. ... There was so much pent up emotion after all the years of wanting to know him that I couldn't get myself to leave. I just couldn't."
The emotional moment at Arlington climaxed a quest that in many ways has consumed Ernest Wrentmore III since childhood. For years, he searched for military records and made countless phone calls seeking information about the father he didn't know, ignoring repeated roadblocks.
Then, thanks to the Internet, some help from a friend, and several almost magical strokes of good fortune, pieces began falling into place late last year.
Wrentmore learned he had a niece 14 years older than he is, and other relatives. A phone call to a woman in California led him to his father's scrapbook, military medals and other personal possessions which she was about to toss out.
Above all, he learned the details of his father's incredible story: That he had been a veteran of three wars; that he'd been married at least six times; and that he joined the U.S. Army under an assumed name at age 12, went into battle and suffered serious wounds in World War I before turning 14.
And that he was recommended for a Medal of Honor, but never received it.
Wrentmore is still turning up facts about his father. And, with help from a nationally known historian and author, he hopes to publish a book about his search for his father and see that he gets the medal denied long ago.
"The medal was something he chased the last 65 years of his life," Wrentmore said. "Hopefully, we can generate enough support that we can get the medal awarded to him. More than anything, I want to honor my dad and see him get the respect he deserves."
Ernest L. Wrentmore's story seems almost unbelievable. Born in 1904, Wrentmore grew up in West Farmington, Ohio. When America entered World War I in April, 1917, he became determined to join, though he was only 12 years old.
Wrentmore ran away from home, hopped a freight and reached Pennsylvania, where he enlisted in the U.S. Army under the alias "Henry Earl Monroe," giving his age as 18. Actually, he was about two months shy of 13.
In France, Wrentmore became a "runner," carrying messages between army units, often under fire. In fall 1918, his regiment joined the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, America's biggest battle of the war.
Shrapnel ripped Wrentmore's legs and he suffered lung damage from inhaling toxic mustard gas, returning home after months in the hospital. He was recommended for a Medal of Honor but, for reasons still unclear, never received it.
How did a 12-year-old manage to enlist, fight German soldiers hand-to-hand, and survive severe wounds before turning 14?
"He had the build of a wrestler and looked much older than he was. But it still boggles the imagination," says historian Edward Lengel, who included Wrentmore's story in To Conquer Hell, his 2008 book on the Meuse-Argonne battle.
"When I first heard his story I was skeptical, but it really happened," Lengel said. "He was the youngest soldier in the army. It's on his tombstone at Arlington and that's about as official as you can get."
Ernest L. Wrentmore III grew up in California knowing almost nothing about his dad, who had died there in 1983. His father was 63 and his mother only 26 when they married, and they divorced soon after Ernest was born in 1968. His mother talked little about his father.
For Wrentmore, not knowing his father was "like having a hole in my life."
"You know when you're a kid out in the schoolyard and some other kid is saying, 'My dad did this or my dad did that.' ... I was never able to do that. There was always an emptiness there and it really never left my mind."
Wrentmore's desire for knowledge of his father continued after the family moved to Kentucky in 1985.
When he was 20, Wrentmore's mom gave him a copy of In Spite of Hell, a book published in 1958 by Ernest L. Wrentmore Jr., his father. He read his father's book over and over, learning that the man he didn't know had been a soldier and a war hero at an age when most boys are just starting to notice girls. Desperate to know more, Wrentmore tried to retrieve his father's military records, but he was told they'd been lost.
A few years later, Wrentmore's mother gave him letters his father had written to her following their divorce. The letters, which indicated that his father had wanted to gain custody and raise him, only whetted Wrentmore's thirst for knowledge.
Searching the Internet one day in 2000, Wrentmore stumbled upon a photograph of his father's grave in Arlington Cemetery. He would call up the photograph almost daily and stare at it, wanting to visit the grave but feeling that he wasn't yet ready for the emotion it certainly would bring.
Wrentmore mentioned his quest to longtime friend and co-worker Denise Drummer of Lexington. Wanting to help, Drummer started searching on her own.
Early one morning just before last Christmas, Drummer called to say, "I think I've found your niece."
Drummer's tip took Wrentmore to Becky Gallentine of Patascala, Ohio, whose late father, born in 1929, had been a son of Ernest Wrentmore from another marriage. Gallentine, who is 57, was stunned to learn that she had a 43-year-old uncle in Lexington. She had no idea that her grandfather had been a war hero.
"When Ernest called me from Lexington, I just couldn't believe it," Gallentine said. "All of us are so happy to have found each other."
Another chapter opened this year when Wrentmore learned that his father had a stepdaughter. His call to her, Jackie Bramlette of Bishop, Calif., proved beneficial in multiple ways. Not only did it connect Wrentmore with another family member, but, "She said, 'I actually have some of his things ... and you couldn't have called at a better time, because I was going to clean out my garage and get rid of all that stuff.'"
The stuff included his father's war medals, his huge scrapbook, and a revised, expanded manuscript of his 1958 book.
Meanwhile, Wrentmore also had called Lengel, the University of Virginia professor who had prominently featured his father's exploits in his 2008 book. Lengel was shocked to get a call from someone claiming to be Ernest L. Wrentmore's son. After all, he noted, the Meuse-Argonne battle happened 93 years ago.
"Several descendants of people in my book have called me, but nothing like this," Lengel said. "When Ernest started telling me his story, I was completely floored."
In March, Lengel escorted Wrentmore to Arlington Cemetery, when he visited his father's grave.
"For many people who try to find lost relatives, it's a matter of putting together one tiny clue after another," Lengel said. "But for Ernest, it was like he knocked on the door and a whole landslide tumbled out. It's really amazing."
Now, Wrentmore says he wants to work with Lengel to secure the Medal of Honor his father never received and, ultimately, re-issue his father's original book, using the expanded manuscript he obtained.
He's also searching for new facts about his father, and he wonders if he still has relatives out there yet to located.
"From the beginning, I wanted to make some kind of connection with my father," Wrentmore said. "The fact that I never got to be with him leaves a void that I don't think will ever go away. But now I feel like I kind of know who I am.
"There used to be a game ... if you could have dinner with any five people, who would it be? For me, it was always, my dad; my dad; my dad; my dad, my dad."
Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397 Ext. 3255.