Legion brings closure to family waiting 72 years for medals from WWII
Generally I don't post articles from the Legion website on the blog as well, but I am making an exception in this case, because I think the story of Elmer Wall needs as much publicity as we can get it, and honestly, I feel proud of having participated in setting this up and writing the article. I hope this also makes you feel good about what your National American Legion is doing for vets, both living and deceased.
'It really is closure'
On May 6, 1942, Pvt. Elmer D. Wall of Liberty, Ky., did what many other men around the country were doing, he joined the U.S. Army with the intent to fight the fascists in Germany. Enlisting as an infantryman, he was assigned to Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 33d Armored Regiment of the storied 3d Armored Division. He left behind a wife, a mother, and a 9-year-old son as he embarked first for England and then landed on the Normandy beaches several days after D-Day.
Despite the initial beachhead, it would take months to secure all of Normandy, owing to the massive hedgerows that the troops and their armored support had trouble penetrating. On Aug. 9, 1944, while running munitions back and forth to the mortar men of his unit, Pvt. Wall was struck by artillery fire and killed just outside the city of St. Lo, France, where he was temporarily buried. The 33d Armored Regiment would eventually be the first unit to cross into Germany.
For several years, the family sought to have his belongings returned, with limited success. Eventually they would receive his meager belongings: a ring, a fountain pen, a penny, a personal picture of his family, a copy of the New Testament, and few other items he carried with him into battle, like his dog tags. Initially buried in St. Lo, it wasn’t until four years later that he was disinterred and brought home to find eternal rest at Luttrell Cemetery in Casey County, Ky.
But in the bureaucratic chaos that was the war department at the time, one thing never made it to the family, or even into his official records: medals for his service. Now, 72 years later, that has been corrected thanks to the hard work of Legionnaire Glen Philips of Liberty, Ky., who worked with the Army to correct this oversight.
During a Veterans Days ceremony at Post 205 in Franklin, Ind., Philips, Post Commander Randy Weathers and Post Adjutant Dave Rook awarded the medals to the four remaining grandchildren of Pvt. Wall.
“We’ve been working on this for over a year,” said Philips, a retired Army staff sergeant. “Private Walls nephew, Earl Wilson [a combat infantryman with service in Vietnam] came to me and he wanted to give his uncle a simple bronze marker for his grave. Through that process, we requested from the National Personnel Records Center his casualty report and got a reply back that it had been burned in the 1973 fire.”
Philips went to the state of Kentucky, which had some files, and then back to Army historians to reconstruct the records. “The first thing I noticed,” said Philips, “he was killed at Normandy, but his awards and decorations on his death report listed ‘none.’ I knew we had a problem right then, so we turned to the Army. It is really humbling, and it’s really nice to know, that with all the things we see that are wrong in the world, sometimes we lose trust in the institutions of the United States. Sometimes we lose faith in ‘will the United States do the right thing?’ I’m here to tell you that all branches of service, especially the United States Army, will do what’s right. [The Army] human resources command in Kentucky left no stone unturned in trying to fix this.”
Weathers noted that Phillips considered Franklin a second home, “and in light of that, and in light of his dedication to veterans, something we pride ourselves on here at Post 205, we have given Staff Sergeant Phillips a 2017 membership here at Post 205, and welcomed our newest member.”
Elmer’s son, Marvin, had moved to Franklin where he married and raised a family. Marvin’s surviving children, Dennis, George, Judy and Patty, were all present for the awards ceremony. Sadly, Marvin passed away several years before the oversight was corrected. While George and Dennis live in Franklin, Judy drove up for the event from Kentucky, and Patty flew in from Florida.
At the ceremony, Weathers presented the family with the long awaited awards which were listed by Rook: Purple Heart Medal, Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two Bronze Service Stars, World War II Victory Medal, Honorable Service Lapel Button for World War II, and a Gold Star lapel button for the family.
Rook read the Purple Heart award before a rifle team conducted a 21 gun salute and a bugler played Taps in Wall’s honor. “To all who shall see these presents, greeting: this is to certify that the President of the United States has awarded the Purple Heart established by General George Washington at Newburgh, New York, August 7, 1782 to Private Elmer D. Wall, Army of the United States for wounds received in action resulting in his death on 9 August 1944 in France. Given under my hand in the City of Washington this second day of September, 2016. John M. McHugh, Secretary of the Army.”
Judy, Elmer’s granddaughter, is a four-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, making the event especially poignant for her. “We didn’t know a lot about my grandfather growing up, of course we never met him,” she said. “My father was only 9 years old when he was killed, and it was always like a mystery because it was such a horrible thing in my father’s life, and my grandmother never wanted to speak of it. So we didn’t really know the details, it was only that picture on the wall of him in his boot camp uniform and we knew he had died in France. But that was all we knew. I always wondered about it, but I was always afraid to ask, and it was never discussed.
“It really is closure for me to find out. One moment he was there, and the next moment he wasn’t, and I always wanted to know exactly what had happened. This [event] makes it a more public forum for my family.”
Nearly 150 people attended the event.
“Freedom is never free,” said Phillips in closing. “It comes with a price. And great men, and great ladies too alike, they pay that price every day, every year, every conflict, every war and not one needs to ever be forgotten. That’s all a veteran ever asks for. As The American Legion, a great organization, we’re not out here for glory for each other, but we want to be remembered. That’s all we ask. Private Wall, he deserves to be remembered, and his service deserves to be acknowledged.”
“I can’t even describe how emotional it is to have this event” said Judy. “The 21 gun salute, everything, it’s just a recognition and I am so appreciative of it. The only down side to it is my father passed away five years ago, and it would have been so sweet for him to be here and see it.”