By Ron Leir
For more than two decades, it sat – carefully preserved – in a Pennsylvania residence.
Next month, however, the Purple Heart medal awarded posthumously to a long-dead Kearny serviceman will be returned to the soldier’s hometown to be stored in a place of honor.
Bill Sweeney, outreach coordinator for the Kearny VOICE (Veterans Outreach Information Community Education) project, co-sponsored by the local American Legion Auxiliary and American Legion, said the medal was conferred on Army Pvt. Wilfred J. Warhurst Jr., a World War II veteran killed in action Jan. 19, 1945, in Europe.
Warhurst’s name is engraved on a bronze plaque, along with the names of other Kearny hero veterans, that is part of a permanent display mounted in the lobby of Kearny Town Hall.
Sweeney said that last September, Tony Cappiti, the-then commander of the United Veterans Organization of Kearny, got a call from Army Capt. Zachariah Fike and his nonprofit organization Purple Hearts Reunited, which collects lost medals and seeks to return them to recipients or family members.
Fike told him that a woman in Pennsylvania had Pvt. Warhurst’s medal and had learned through the Dept. of Veterans Affairs that there were no known living relatives of Warhurst and wondered what, if anything, could be done about it.
“We decided it would be nice for us, through the VOICE, to partner with the Kearny Museum and let them take custody of the medal so it could be safely stored there and available for display to the public,” Sweeney said.
The medal presentation is expected to happen sometime during the May 26 Kearny Memorial Day observance, he added.
Keystone State resident Patricia Belsky is credited by Sweeney and Fike for setting things in motion but when reached by phone last week in her current East Greenville residence, Belsky said it was actually her father-in-law Chester Belsky who found the medal as he was walking around the parking lot of the former Lehigh Valley family business in Pennsburg, Pa.
“He used to bring home all sorts of strange things,” Belsky said.
This particular day – which, according to Belsky, happened more than 20 years ago – “he came and said, ‘Look what I found,’ ’’ she said. It was the Purple Heart medal, “in pristine condition, a beautiful tribute.”
Belsky said she called the V.A., only to be told that Warhurst had no known survivors and that she should look after it, which she did. “I kept it in my jewelry box,” she said.
And there the medal sat until sometime in 2013 when she happened to be talking to a friend whose husband was, by coincidence, a Purple Heart winner who knew about Fike’s organization. And Belsky, remembering the mystery medal, decided to reach out to him.
Man on a mission
Fike, 33, a self-described “military brat” whose parents both had military service, is 17-year Army veteran and a Purple Heart winner himself for combat action in Afghanistan on Sept. 10, 2010. He said he’s been involved in returning lost or missing medals to soldiers and/or their families for the past three years.
His organization has become a sort of clearinghouse for those medals. “People who hear or read about us get in touch and we get about three medals a week,” Fike said. “Right now, we have over 200 medals we’ve been trying to find a home for. Most have the name of the recipient engraved on the back, meaning that he or she was killed in combat. We track down the families and return [the medals].”
In cases like Warhurst, “where the family is no longer with us, we find what we consider homes of honor to deliver them,” Fike said. “If at all possible, we try to keep the medals close to the recipients’ hometowns so we keep their history close together. But if that’s not doable, we’ll do a national museum.”
Before dealing with missing medals, Fike was a collector of military antiques. “It broke my heart to see military items being discarded,” he said.
Then, one day, his mother brought him a Purple Heart medal awarded to Pvt. Corrado Piccoli of Watertown, N.Y. “It symbolizes so much,” Fike said. So he set to find the soldier’s family so he could give them the medal. It took a year but he did it.
And so began his quest in earnest.
Now a member of the Vermont National Guard, Fike said: “I do my Army thing from 9 [a.m.] to 5 [p.m.] and from 9 [p.m.] to midnight I dedicate to my [Purple Hearts United] foundation and I do [medal] returns on weekends. I’ve done 80 returns so far. On April 12, I’ll be in Kansas City. I’ve gone as far as Los Angeles and, pretty much, all over the U.S.”
Back in the ‘40s, Fike said, “people would tend to hide their valuables and medals in their house and, over time, they’d forget about them. Then the family sells the house and the new occupants would find these missing medals in attics and other hiding places. “
In one case, a soldier got married before going to war where he is killed and is awarded the medal. His wife moves back to her family, she passes on and her kids find the medal – now they’re reunited with it and the memories of their dad.”
In another case, Fike recalled, a multi-generational family didn’t realize their father’s medal was missing. “There’d been a rift and the family members hadn’t been close for maybe 55, 60 years. Then after I was able to bring them the medal, they had their first family reunion day. I got to see three generations come together and now they’re closer than they’ve ever been.”
Initially a one-man enterprise, Fike said he’s now aided and abetted by 10 research volunteers, including a national genealogist, who help locate medal recipients and/or families. Once a contact is made, he schedules a medal return ceremony. “They’re professionally framed for free for the families and we get a guest speaker, like a congressman or local dignitary. We need to do that for the families. It’s what they deserve.” Fike always makes the presentation.
The framing service, travel and related costs typically run “around $1,200,” Fike said. “The first two years, I was funding that but now we rely on donations to my nonprofit.”
Memorial Day return
He said the Kearny private’s medal “will be framed, hopefully with his picture if we can get one, and an American flag,” when he makes the delivery on Memorial Day. “I’ll be doing two returns that day, both in New Jersey,” he said.
To reach Fike’s organization, people can email him care of purpleheartsreunited@gmail. com.
An obituary of Pvt. Wilfred J. Warhurst Jr. retrieved by Kearny Library Director Josh Humphrey from an old newspaper clipping said that he had lived at 92 Devon Terrace, and was a former student at Kearny High where “he became a member of champion sprint relay teams…” Before entering the service, “he was employed at the Pollak Manufacturing Co. in Kearny.”
The obituary said that Warhurst “was inducted into the Army in January 1943. He trained at Camp Pickett, Val., and at Camp Davis, N.C., before being assigned to overseas duty in February 1944. He was attached to a unit of an advanced anti-aircraft artillery battalion on the Western Front.”
According to Fike’s research, Warhurst was serving with the 320th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division, which advanced to Arlon, Belgium, Dec. 25-26, 1944, “and took part in the fighting to relieve Bastogne, throwing off the attacks of four German divisions, taking Villers-laBonne- Eau, on Jan. 10, 1945, after a 13-day fight and Lutrebois in a five-day engagement.” On Jan. 18, “the Division returned to Metz to resume its interrupted rest.” Then, the obituary says, Warhurst “was seriously wounded in action in Belgium on Jan. 12 [and] died a week later, Jan. 19, at an Army station hospital in Luxemburg.”
Warhurst, who was 27 when he died, was buried at Luxembourg American Cemetery in Luxemburg.