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WWII Veteran Receives Long Overdue Purple Heart Medal

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now we have an oversight from World War II. Some veterans of the greatest generation did not get medals to which they were entitled. Jay Price of WUNC has the story of one veteran finally recognized almost 80 years after being wounded in battle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARVIN D CORNETT: My name is Marvin D. Cornett. The D stands for Dempsey.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: On July 1, Marvin Cornett turns 100 years old.

JAN MENDOZA: He never talked about the war to us.

PRICE: Jan Mendoza is one of his daughters.

MENDOZA: He only, you know, told us, yeah, I was a paratrooper. He always wore the 82nd Airborne hat, you know, flags flying in the front yard and bumper stickers on the car with the 82nd Airborne insignia.

PRICE: Cornett always identified with the 82nd Airborne Division, his wartime outfit. After seeing the World War II drama "Saving Private Ryan," his daughter wanted to know more.

MENDOZA: I started asking him questions, and he clammed up. He was like, why are you asking these questions? Why do you want to know all of a sudden? And I was like, because this is history. They don't teach us this in school. I want to know.

PRICE: Then she had an idea. She bought him a cassette recorder and asked him to tape his whole story. What she got and turned into a homemade YouTube documentary is an American classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORNETT: I was born July 1, 1921, at Lynch Mines (ph), Ky.

PRICE: A childhood in coal country so poor that Cornett went to school barefoot even in winter. Then a job tending bar. His family knew some of this, but not the part about the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORNETT: The light tank went over and just laid his barrel down on one of the windows and let a round off - 42 Germans come out of that house.

PRICE: Cornett, they learned, had been in famous, terrible battles - a night parachute assault at Salerno, Italy, then a beach landing and a battle at Anzio, just south of Rome. He was wounded in the notoriously heavy fighting there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORNETT: And about that time, mortars came in on us and artillery. That's when I got blew up in the air. And that was a long day.

PRICE: The shell instantly killed the soldier beside him. Cornett was tossed aside like a broken doll. His eardrums were burst, and he had a serious concussion.

MENDOZA: And he's had ringing in his ears ever since. And he lost his sense of taste and smell. The man could never taste food again, never smell anything again.

PRICE: After weeks of recovery, the Army sent him to Fort Benning, Ga., to be a parachute instructor. There, he met Eloyce Miller, a parachute rigger in the Women's Army Corps, and wooed her on an Army surplus motorcycle. After the war, Cornett served two decades, then ran a motor pool for the California Highway Patrol. Eloyce died in 2017. A veteran who supplies vintage military gear to museums noticed that Cornett should have received the Purple Heart and volunteered to help with the process. Cornett never sought it for himself.

MENDOZA: That's all he says. He goes, I don't deserve it. And I don't know why. He never said why. I can just assume why. It could have been because he lived, the other guy didn't.

PRICE: The pandemic kept Cornett isolated in this assisted living facility and his family noticed the decline. The lean dynamo who jogged 6 miles before sunrise and pumped out 100 pushups a day until just a few years ago is more frail. And his mind is still sharp, but he struggles to put words together.

MENDOZA: We thought, oh, my God. We don't want to lose this guy - you know, lose him before this all happens just because of COVID and the isolation that he's having to endure.

PRICE: But Cornett made it. He got vaccinated, and on a recent morning, the 99-year-old combat veteran put on one of his old uniforms with an 82nd Airborne patch on one shoulder. Another daughter drove him to an American Legion hall near Sacramento, where a socially-distanced group assembled outdoors. An Army officer set an iPad and Cornett's lap so Major General Christopher Donahue, commander of Cornett's beloved 82nd Airborne Division, could help present the metal pandemic-style by Zoom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTOPHER DONAHUE: You represent everything that is great with this country, and you are the 82nd Airborne Division. Every day, we live up to what you have done, and we can never thank you enough.

PRICE: And his daughter got to speak, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MENDOZA: This is something Marvin never pursued himself, a long overdue Purple Heart. But like many combat veterans who had buddies that didn't make it home, he didn't think he deserved it. Daddy, you deserve it.

PRICE: For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Chapel Hill, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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