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Santa Rosa woman helps honor bomber crew 70 years later

It's a small, cheap, distorted piece of stamped metal. But how it and the odyssey triggered by its discovery have altered Holly Mead's life.

The Santa Rosa artist is back home from the trip of a lifetime to the Tuscany region of northern Italy, where she was a VIP at the dedication of a grateful town's new World War II memorial monument.

Mead, 35, brought back with her the little metal plate that she and her mother will treasure for the rest of their lives.

It's the Army-issued dog tag that Mead's grandfather, a young bomber pilot named Benton "Benny" Eichorn, wore when he died in the downing of a B-25 one day after D-Day in 1944. The dog tag apparently lay for 70 years precisely right where it fell, in woods near the town of Vernio.

Just last December, the ID tag caught the eye of a hunter named Alessio Baldini. "He found it crumpled into a ball," Mead said.

Baldini unfurled it and, realizing what it was, took it to members of a small historical society and World War II museum in Vernio, about 20 miles northwest of Florence. A prominent part of the museum, created only two years ago, is an exhibit of fragments of the American bomber that slammed down and exploded in the woods in '44.

The aim of the Italian association, Linea Gotica Alta Val di Bisenzio, is to preserve the memory of those lost to the Allies' bloody, northward slog from Sicily toward the defensive barrier the German military called Gotenstellung, or the Gothic Line. German forces were attempting to defend that line in Italy when history's largest military invasion hit the beaches at France's Normandy.

The hunter's discovery of 1st Lt. Eichorn's dog tag thrilled the president of the historical association, Lisa Nannini. She knew very little about the seven men aboard the twin-engine B-25, of whom only one survived the downing by German anti-aircraft fire.

But Internet research had revealed to Nannini that Eichorn was the pilot. And now she held in her hand a most personal artifact of his.

Early this year, Nannini set out to locate and notify the family of Eichorn of the discovery and to request personal and military information for a book she sought to write about the American bomber that crashed and blew up near her town.

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