WPTA Fort Wayne has a unique special airing Thursday, December 21, about a man in the market who fought in World War II in Papua New Guinea, who lost his dog tags after sustaining a serious head injury. The man’s tags were located in October, and returned to him by an Australian man who simply wanted to thank the veteran, named Erven Oetting, for his service.
The WPTA anchor, Brien McElhatten, went to Papua New Guinea and Australia on his own dime to do the story. “A last-minute trip to the South Pacific wasn’t in the budget,” he says.
He didn’t think twice about covering his air fare, which ran around $3,000. “I felt that strongly about it,” he says.
Quincy Media owns WPTA, an ABC affiliate. Quincy also owns the NBC and MyNetworkTV stations in Fort Wayne.
The 30-minute special, Lost and Found: A Soldier’s Story, airs at 7 p.m. Thursday, bumping Entertainment Tonight. It’s McElhatten’s first documentary-type special. “You can’t put a price on a story like this,” he says. “There’s just no way I was not going to do the story.”
McElhatten says the Australian man who delivered the dog tags, James Tinalli, phoned WPTA in the fall. McElhatten happened to pick up the phone in the newsroom, and heard about Oetting’s dog tags turning up in Papua New Guinea, and heard the soldier was living in the DMA. “He’s alive and well in Fort Wayne,” says the anchor. “He’s living a very humble life.”
Willie Guise found the tags, and contacted his cousin, Tinalli, a World War II buff. Tinalli located Oetting, who is 94, in Fort Wayne. “I gave up the idea of ever finding them,” said Oetting.
What motivated Tinalli to deliver the dog tags was simply an urge to say thank you for the soldier’s bravery in fighting the Japanese in the “Battle of Milne Bay.”
“He felt people should know about the sacrifice the soldiers made, and people should know that people in Australia and Papua New Guinea are very grateful,” said McElhatten.
Before the December 21 special, WPTA ran an almost eight-minute story on Oetting and Tinalli and his dog tags back before Thanksgiving, McElhatten mentioning “a piece of Fort Wayne from World War II found on a faraway land.”
McElhatten said he thought the competition might run their own story after that aired, but it appears WPTA has the exclusive.
McElhatten spent three days in Papua New Guinea, shooting the story himself. He then spent a 13-hour layover in Australia, where he filmed Tinalli before heading back to the airport and flying home. “This person put his life on the line,” said Tinalli. “The least I could do was take them back to him.”
McElhatten acknowledges that the $3,000 plane ticket is “not a small chunk of change,” but says he’d do it again in a second.
The anchor spent around 20 hours in the editing bay, working on the special. Tinalli and Oetting were also recorded at Oetting’s home, when Tinalli presented his dog tags. “You can’t imagine the feeling,” said Oetting, “when they said somebody found your dog tags.”
The anchor is very psyched to share the story with Fort Wayne residents. “We’re losing our World War II veterans so fast,” McElhatten said. “I was fortunate to take a moment to have a conversation with one.”
He was excited to get to do a positive story too. “We report on so much bad news,” said McElhatten. “This story is about the good in the world.”
He added, “This is why we’re in the business of broadcasting—to tell these kinds of stories.”
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.