Kennewick veteran celebrates Purple Heart Day

By Pratik Joshi, Herald staff writerAugust 7, 2010 

KENNEWICK -- Charles Smith is proud of his Purple Heart.

He earned it at 19 after he was wounded in a battle against German forces in Europe during World War II that he remembers vividly.

And today the nation will remember the sacrifices of Smith and millions of other veterans as it celebrates Purple Heart Day. The Purple Heart medal is given to those who are wounded or killed in action.

Though for years Smith didn't talk about his experience, he now shares his story because he feels it's important to honor the country's veterans.

"It was Feb. 16, 1945," recalled Smith, who was a rifleman with the 376th Infantry when he was hit by a chunk of shrapnel from an 88 mm round.

The shrapnel, which he kept after doctors removed it, hit him on the temple, ran through his cheek and ended up near his gums, Smith said. Though the wound healed, he suffered terrible headaches because of his injury even years later after he settled into civilian life as a teacher for the Kennewick School District in the 1950s.

And for more than 50 years the Kennewick native, who served as a land mine scout for his regiment, never talked about the incident. Nor did he talk about the two weeks he spent on the front lines seeing his fellow soldiers die violent deaths.

"I just didn't feel like talking about it," Smith said. But he ultimately was coaxed by his granddaughter Megan into sharing his story in 2006 with her 11th-grade history class at Southridge High.

Smith, now 84, spoke for an hour and a half from memory. He showed the class the piece of shrapnel and his medal as part of a display that he put together.

The students' jaws dropped and eyes widened as he made their history lesson come alive, he said.

"There is no time to be afraid when you are only thinking of survival," Smith recalled.

Wars generally don't solve any problems, said Smith, who remembers seeing his sergeant's legs being blown off and what it was like to fire at enemy soldiers.

But he is proud of his service. His car's special license plates say he's a combat wounded veteran, a message that's repeated on his phone's voice mail.

For Purple Heart Day, there will be ceremonies across the nation to honor wounded veterans, said John Bircher, spokesman for the Military Order of the Purple Heart. About 1.7 million Purple Heart awards have been given to combat veterans, many of whom are dead, he said.

The Purple Heart is the oldest military decoration in the world. It was created as the Badge of Military Merit on Aug. 7, 1782, by George Washington, Bircher said. But it fell into disuse, and was neither canceled nor awarded to anyone, he said.

The award was revived in 1932, the same year the Military Order of the Purple Heart was formed to advance the interests of the recipients, said Bircher, who got his medal during the Vietnam War in 1969.

Lenard James, a former longtime Kennewick resident, got the award for an injury he suffered in 1951 as a Marine in Korea.

"A land mine blew up and I caught a shrapnel in my chest," he said.

But the Purple Heart recognition for James came more than 30 years later, after a recommendation from his company commander. James doesn't know how his commander found out about the omission.

"I was surprised and glad when I got the medal. It made me feel special," said James, who's part of the Yakima chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. The chapter has about 35 members, including many from the Tri-Cities.

James is proud of his service to the country, but he said he never felt comfortable talking about the war.

"I was scared to death," he said.

"I saw the land mine just before it went off. One minute I was standing and next minute I was lying on the ground. I didn't have time to get out of the way."

James said he killed enemy soldiers, but now thinks killing is not a solution. Still, he wants the younger generation to treat combat veterans with respect and dignity.

Bircher said it's important for the country to remember combat veterans and what they have done for the country. And he said he's proud of "our young men and women who are serving today," and who are ready to make the ultimate sacrifice.

-- Pratik Joshi: 582-1541; pjoshi@tricityherald.com

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