WACO, Texas (KWTX) How many times have you seen an old picture of a fallen service member in a photo album, and wondered what they were like before they died serving our country?
Jolie Stewart holds a WWII era photo of her late grandfather, Philip Schnitzius.
For one Texas woman wondering wasn't enough.
Jolie Stewart wanted to find out what kind of person her grandfather was and exactly what he did in World War II.
And she wants to encourage others to find out more about loved ones who paid the ultimate price.
Jolie said, “my grandmother kept his service picture. She keep it on her dresser for years and I even had a copy as a little girl. I was always enamored by it. This was a person who was my grandfather, I didn’t understand why we didn’t talk about it more.”
From a young age, Jolie burned to solve the mystery, who was this man bonded to her by blood but as distant as a stranger.
I drove everybody crazy asking questions about it and I was always drawn to him.
But sometimes grief can cast a shadow over the life that was.
“All my life my aunt and my grandmother until a couple of years ago they have been my connection. They’ve been my rock but they never talked about, we call him Big Philip,” Jolie told us.
His name was Philip Schnitzius and answers were hard to come by.
But Big Phillip’s little brother Pat Schnitzius did shed some light on the personality of the man in the picture.
He loved the outdoors and he was a budding recording artist, even producing a record with a group of other singers.
But war silenced his music.
“All of those three young men that were his friends that played in this group, they were all killed. All four of them were killed in WWII,” Pat told us.
Philip’s love for his wife and two children was unquestionable, but so was his love for his country.
Jolie said, "my understanding from my Grandmother was that he wanted to join much earlier. She begged him not to, she knew there was going to be a point where he was going to be drafted. She ask him not to and he didn’t but he was chomping at the bit to go, probably like every man during that time."
Slowly family eked out tidbits of his life.
He was drafted into the Army in 1943.
In September 1944 he departed for Europe as a replacement.
And on December 26, 1944 he was attached to 774th tank battalion as a tank gunner.
"Once he was attached, he went to I think it was Ogden was the first place and it was at that point, because the Battle of the Bulge had started really ramping up and they were losing people right and left,” Jolie told us.
Along the way, Jolie discovered a bundle of letters, worn by time and anxious hands.
“This war is horrible, more horrible than you can possibly realize,” he wrote, “If anything happens to me please take good care of the kids.”
And his faith was evident.
In one letter Philip wrote, “keep praying for us all, we need the prayers more now than ever before.”
Jolie remembered something her grandmother told her, "she would say, every Saturday I would go to the movie theater to watch the news reels and just pray I would see him."
But the next note that came wasn’t from Philip.
By March 16, 1945, he was gone.
Jolie told us, "my grandmother would talk about it a little bit. It was a very painful period for her. She never re-married. She told me she had two children to raise and that’s what she did. She got on with her life. It was that generation, put your head down, go to work and do the right thing."
Jolie’s innate curiosity led to a career as investigator.
If she looks familiar, it’s because she led the inquest into one of the biggest Texas murder cases in the past five years: the deaths of the Kaufman County District Attorney and his wife, and the Assistant D.A..
She got answers putting a man named Eric Williams behind bars.
“I’ve always been an investigator with them so I’m nosy, have a natural curiosity you know, I want to know why. That definitely helped me in my search for my grandfather. There’s no doubt,” she told us.
So it's no surprise she kept digging to find out what happened to Big Philip.
"Every now and then I would just do a blind search of '774th Tank Battalion' and one day I was getting ready to leave work and I just happened to type this in. A video popped up and it had an older gentlemen on it and it said 774th Tank Battalion. I thought, we’ll we will try it," she explained.
"I watched the video, and it was Andy Carpenter. And for the first time I knew my grandfather’s story," she said.
In part two of this report we'll explain exactly what Jolie Stewart. discovered.
We'll also show you how a group called Witness to War helped provide answers and preserves the stories of service men and woman for generations to come.