World War II veteran’s Purple Heart finds its way back to his family

01/08/2014 10:36 PM

01/09/2014 7:28 AM

Buddy Richardson tried to hold himself together, but tears got the best of him, along with many others who gathered for a ceremony Wednesday at the Sands Ocean Dunes Resort’s Hall of Heroes to ensure Odell Holden’s Purple Heart made it home.

The medal was awarded to Holden, a 23-year-old Army technical sergeant from the Pawleys Swamp community, who was killed in action Aug. 28, 1944, during World War II. The medal was found 15 years ago by a couple who kept it safe until they could initiate the process of finding the family where it belonged.

“Thank you – you don’t know what this means,” said Richardson, Holden’s nephew, who accepted the Purple Heart on behalf of him and his sister, Lois Weatherford, who was unable to attend. “I knew he was killed but not the history. My mother talked about him … This is just such an honor.

The Purple Heart is the nation’s oldest military award, having been introduced in 1782 by Gen. George Washington. The medal is awarded to members of the U.S. military who have shed blood in a combat campaign, said James Miller, state commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, who presided at the ceremony.

Another Purple Heart also is being scheduled to soon be reunited with a family member in South Carolina.

Joan Bilsbeck of Summerville will be receiving the medal that was awarded to her uncle, Robert Swinson, who served in the Pacific in World War II.

Shane and Melissa Gray, who found the medal, helped present it to its rightful owner. The couple were doing yard work at an abandoned house next door to them when Shane found it, still in its original case, and they put it in a dresser drawer for safe-keeping, Melissa said.

“We told each other, ‘One day, it’ll get back where it belongs, but I don’t know how,’ ” Shane Gray said.

They eventually connected with neighbor Patrick Burke, also a Purple Heart recipient, who called on Bill Huffaker, commander of Myrtle Beach’s chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Huffaker said he spent several days making calls locally in search of family members, and Rich Roszelle, state adjutant for the group, searched records before enlisting the help of Capt. Zachariah Fike, who founded in 2012 and has helped return more than 80 medals.

Fike, who serves in the Army National Guard in Georgia, Vt., was wounded Sept. 11, 2010, and attended the ceremony, along with members of the Purple Heart order, Richardson family and friends, and members of Rolling Thunder, which helps American veterans from all wars.

“I’ve seen more Purple Hearts in this room than I’ve ever seen,” said Fike, who joked with the group about how warm the weather was compared with Vermont.

There wasn’t a lot of military assistance for the families of those who lost loved ones in World War II, and with the loss of so many, officers traveled from one home to the next, delivering the bad news, Fike said. Having the medal gave families a remembrance they could touch and feel, but things happen over time, and medals are lost.

Some have been sold and can go for $300 on up, with one going for as much as $10,000, but they should instead be kept in a place of honor, Fike said.

The ceremony was held at the Hall of Heroes, which was created about three years ago and sponsored by the owner of the Sands Ocean Dunes Resort, Lee Rawcliff, said General Manager Bruce Shipley. The hall is open to the public and has various military displays, including one with a gold dog tag for every trooper who has died in hostile action since the end of the Vietnam War until 9-11 and for others who have died in the global war on terror.

“We try to bring in the young people, too,” Shipley said. “They’ve never heard of Vietnam ... and when they see the gold tags, they get a little wide-eyed.”

Holden served with the Army’s Company Alpha 13th Infantry Regiment, 8th Infantry Division, which entered Lesneven, France, on Aug. 18, 1944, and was killed two days before the division entered Plouvien, France, on Aug. 30, 1944. He had five sisters and two brothers who lived around Conway and Myrtle Beach, and Richardson said he is buried in a family graveyard in Galivants Ferry.

The Purple Heart order tracked down other medals Holden received and presented them in an honor box to Richardson. Fike of the 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded in U.S. history, only 180,000 are enrolled in the Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New York, but he enrolled Holden, for which Richardson also receives a coin and certificate.

Amidst all the emotion, Richardson pointed out family members who were present, including 8-year-old Holden Biddy, Weatherford’s grandson, who carries the family name. Holden, Richardson and Gray were given Purple Heart replica pins by the Purple Heart order.

“This is not a happenstance meeting,” said Richardson, a Vietnam-era veteran, before listing many members of his family who served and continue to serve in the military. “Odell is one of a big patriotic family.”

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