Jimmy Doris was a Navy Seabee fighting on Okinawa, Iwo Jima and Tinian Island in the South Pacific during World War II when he found a photo album of a Japanese family.
Soldiers often kept the guns, knives, belts or medals of fallen enemy soldiers, but something touched Doris about the photos, which he found in a cave. When he came home from war, he brought the album with him.
Doris died when he was 31, and the album was stored in a box in his attic in Yonkers, N.Y.
About 10 years ago, his niece, Barbara Holtan, was visiting her aunt when she learned about the album.
"I was so touched by seeing all these family photos, and I asked her if I could have it and try to find the family so that we could give it back to them," she tells NPR's Scott Simon. Holtan has three adopted children from Vietnam and Korea and says she values the importance of personal history.
Holtan thought she might be able to find the family because some of the photos have Japanese writing on them. A professor at Towson University in Maryland told her one featured an army rank insignia. Holtan sent a photocopy of the album to the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the consulate general of Japan in New York, but neither has been able to locate the family. The embassy said it could take years to track artifacts.
Doris died before Holtan was born, so she was unable to speak to him about the album.
"I've always fantasized that the young Japanese soldier had brought this with him into the war as mementos to remind him of home and had hidden it in the cave and then Jimmy came across it," she says.