QUAKERTOWN For years, Pvt. Joseph Garrity's death in World War II was a subject too painful for many in his family to broach.

He had been the smiling young man in the family photo whose personal effects were hidden away in an attic - as if to keep the grief at arm's length.

But a nephew, Joe Garrity, wanted to know more about the man he was named after.

So the younger Garrity, a commercial real estate portfolio manager from Quakertown, began to research his uncle's life. Over 15 years, he pieced together a picture of the paratrooper's service with the famed 101st Airborne Division.

Pvt. Garrity, he learned, had been considered a hero by the Dutch town he helped liberate. He also made a lasting impression on a young woman there who never forgot him.

Joe Garrity remembered his grandparents describing her as his uncle's girlfriend.

"He was only on the ground for six days," said Garrity, 59. "What kind of relationship could they have had?"

This August, the final pieces of the mystery started to fall into place - thanks to a cache of letters that had been packed away for decades after arriving at a South Philadelphia home, an overseas trip, and an unexpected meeting with an elderly woman in a Dutch town.

Joining up

Pvt. Garrity was 21 when he joined the Army in 1942. The youngest of seven children raised in a South Philadelphia rowhouse, he served in the 102d Infantry Division before transferring to the 501st Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.

He changed assignments for the extra "50 bucks a month" he would be paid as a paratrooper, his nephew said.

During training at Fort Benning, Ga., Pvt. Garrity bumped into Edward "Babe" Heffron, who recognized him from dance parties in a Philadelphia neighborhood.

"He was a nice fellow," recalled Heffron, now 90, whose heroism was portrayed in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. "He gave everything he had."

On Sept. 17, 1944, Pvt. Garrity's regiment had parachuted into the Netherlands, landing near a town called Veghel. The Allied forces were greeted joyfully as heroes freeing the residents from German occupation.

The regiment was dispatched as part of Operation Market Garden, a mission to enter Germany from the Netherlands by capturing the Arnhem Road bridge and crossing over the Rhine River.

U.S. and British troops ultimately aimed to capture Berlin and "knock out the seat of Nazi power," said historian Mark Bando, who has written eight books on World War II.

After landing, Pvt. Garrity and another serviceman knocked on the door of a local house.

There, the American soldier met 18-year-old Jane van Haaren and her family. Over the next week, he became a regular visitor.

"Joseph came to us every day," van Haaren would later write in a letter to his parents.

He strung and repaired communication wires on the roof used for radio communication among the troops. He sang songs and ate dinner with the family several times.

One day, Pvt. Garrity warned the van Haarens that German forces were approaching. For days, they hid in their cellar.

As they did, Jane van Haaren took a piece of a parachute that several soldiers had autographed for her and outlined their signatures with embroidery.

The immediate danger ended, but so did the daily visits from the American paratrooper. After three days, a friend stopped by the family's house with tragic news:

Pvt. Garrity had been killed when a piece of shrapnel pierced his helmet. He died in the arms of a chaplain.

Ultimately, thousands of other soldiers lost their lives in that unsuccessful mission to capture the Arnhem Road bridge. It was later dramatized in the 1977 movie A Bridge Too Far.

As the news of the private's death made it back to South Philadelphia, a niece, Joan Conwell, watched her mother stagger out of the family's home.

"She was running and falling at the same time, hobbling in grief," recalled Conwell, 79, of Wayne, who was in fourth grade at the time. "I didn't know what it was, but they had gotten the telegram."

Pvt. Garrity was buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten.

'I promise you'

Joe Garrity and his wife made plans to visit the cemetery this summer on a trip to Europe. At that point, he still knew only pieces of the story - and he still didn't know the name of the young woman who had befriended his uncle.

Then, days before their trip, Garrity heard from Conwell, his cousin. She told him she had found an old metal suitcase that had been in the family for decades.

Inside were letters van Haaren had written nearly 70 years ago to the parents of Pvt. Garrity. In one, she told them: "I promise you to take care of his grave."

In August, Garrity and his wife visited the grave. And, with the help of local residents, they found his uncle's girlfriend.

Van Haaren never married. A retired social worker, she lives in a one-bedroom apartment in the town of Tilburg. She is 91.

'Chills'

"When we asked about her relationship with my uncle," Garrity said, "she put her finger to her lips and said: 'The past is the past.' "

Then, he said, van Haaren pulled out the parachute cloth that she had embroidered 69 years ago while hiding with her family in the basement.

Joe Garrity spotted his uncle's name.

"I felt chills. It was pretty emotional," Garrity said, fighting back tears. "You spend 15 years doing research and then to hold something he actually held.. . ."

Garrity and his wife also met the Dutch couple who now care for Pvt. Garrity's grave as part of a volunteer group.

They stopped by the house where van Haaren lived during the war and visited the Windmill monument in the town of Eerde on which Pvt. Garrity's name is inscribed along with other soldiers who died during the mission.

The visit, especially his time with van Haaren, gave Garrity a measure of comfort.

"In his final days, even in war, Uncle Joe met someone and developed a friendship," Garrity said. "It wasn't all foxhole and getting shot. He had some time to live."