WWII Purple Heart Medals return home
Story by: Maj. Randall Stillinger
Posted: July 28, 2015
SAN ANTONIO - The Purple Hearts of two fallen World War II Soldiers were returned during a patriotic ceremony on July 24 at a local health care and rehabilitation center.
The lost medals, which were recovered by the non-profit organization Purple Hearts Reunited (PHR), were presented to the family of one of the fallen, and then turned over to the commanding general of the 36th Infantry Division.
The first medal, which was posthumously awarded to Pfc. James Thomas Hull, was presented to retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Cecil Hull, his last surviving brother and a recipient of the Purple Heart himself.
Pfc. Hull was born Jan. 24, 1919, to Rufus and Pocahontas “Honto” Johnson Hull in Moulton, Texas. He enlisted on November 25, 1940 and served with Company L, 3rd Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division.
After months of final preparation in North Africa, the 36th conducted the first amphibious assault by an American division in the European theater near Salerno, Italy on Sept. 9, 1943. The 3-141st sustained heavy casualties during the beach assault and landing. Among those killed in action that day was a young Pfc. Hull.
Reuniting the Purple Heart
Several years ago, a Highland, Calif. resident discovered the medal while cleaning out a home and contacted retired Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Paul C. Pfeifer, a member of the local American Legion post. In June the post reached out to PHR, and within a few hours they had located the Hull family in San Antonio.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Mitchell Bell and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Dennis Hensley, members of the PHR Valor Guard, traveled to San Antonio to present the medal during the emotional ceremony. Hull’s wife of 69 years, Sophie, spoke on behalf of her ailing husband.
“I can’t express my feelings for all that you’ve done,” she said. “This means so much to us and I know what it means to him. Thank you for all of this.”
To preserve the medal, the family donated it to the 36th Infantry Division of the Texas Army National Guard. Division Commander, Maj. Gen. Lester Simpson, received the medal from Hull and will display it at the division headquarters in Austin, where it will be honored and protected by current and future Soldiers.
“I’m happy to be here to accept the medal that represents your brother’s service and sacrifice, and appreciate the work that Purple Hearts Reunited does to get these back to the families,” Simpson said. “We’re certainly happy to have these medals back home.”
A Second Medal Comes Home
Bell also presented a second Purple Heart to Simpson during the ceremony at the Pecan Valley Rehabilitation and Health Care Center. The medal belonged to Pvt. Joseph Eugene "Gene" Bone, who was born August 19, 1920 in Taylor County, Georgia to Joseph Jackson and Eva Fannie Mott Bone.
Pvt. Bone enlisted on April 28, 1943 and served with the 143rd Infantry Regiment, another unit within the 36th Infantry Division. He had survived the amphibious landing at Salerno and fought to capture the village of San Pietro despite strong enemy resistance and severe winter weather. He sacrificed his life on February 7, 1944 as the division attempted to secure a bridgehead across the Rapido River and is buried at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy.
In January 2014, veteran Gariel Burchett contacted the Military Order of the Purple Heart after finding the medal while cleaning out his mother-in-law’s home. Since Pvt. Bone's family is no longer living, the Burchett family requested that the medal be delivered to an appropriate place where it can be viewed by others. The medal will be placed on the wall in the division headquarters next to the one belonging to Pfc. Hull along with stories that tell of their service and sacrifice.
“We’re working very hard to get our young Soldiers interested in the history and legacy of the division,” Simpson said. “Our headquarters is a great place for these Purple Hearts so they can see and read about those who have sacrificed and died in defense of our country.”
“These men joined the same unit and fought in the battle of Salerno. Pfc. Hull gave his life on that beach while attacking the Germans. Pvt. Bone survived another four months and died while fighting to cross a river,” Bell said. “They sacrificed in the final act of their military career. They died in service to their country.”
Purple Hearts Reunited
Purple Hearts Reunited was created in 2012 by Army Capt. Zachariah Fike, who was wounded during combat in Afghanistan. The non-profit organization, which relies on grants and donations to continue the mission, has returned over 150 lost or stolen medals and artifacts to family members or museums. The return of these two medals was sponsored by a grant from the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation. Framing of the medals was generously donated by Village Frame Shoppe & Gallery in St. Albans, Vermont.
The return of these medals actually makes a total of three 36th Infantry Division Purple Hearts that have been delivered within a week. The medal belonging to Pvt. Berlin E. Small was also returned to his family in Brainbridge Island, Wash.
“The return of three medals to the same division within a week is definitely historic from a PHR perspective. I would like to think that these guys have been orchestrating these efforts together from up above,” Fike said. “I truly appreciate everyone's effort on this project.”