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Marine receives Bronze Star -- 70 years later

Kenny Kemp
Marine Cpl. Walt Filipek salutes after being awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his actions on the island of Okinawa during World War II. Filipek earned the medals in 1945, but is just now receiving them.
Kenny Kemp Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, state National Guard adjutant general, pins the Bronze Star on Filipek. The medal is awarded for bravery in combat.
Kenny Kemp A shadow box of medals Filipek was awarded during the war, but never received because of a bureaucratic snafu. Filipek braved enemy machine guns to save his squad leader June 12, 1945.

ST. ALBANS, W.Va. -- It took 70 years, but U.S. Marine Cpl. Walt Filipek finally received his Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Filipek, a veteran of the bloody Okinawa campaign of World War II, was presented with his long-lost medals at a special ceremony Monday at the Hansford Senior Center in St. Albans.

"I never saw them before in my life," the gregarious Marine said just before the ceremony, while hamming it up for TV cameras and soliciting hugs from every woman in sight.

Filipek, a daily visitor to the Hansford Center, told about 100 people that he had been talking with another Marine veteran about his military service, and found out he might be entitled to medals he didn't even know he had. Filipek was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his actions on Okinawa, but through a bureaucratic snafu, the medals never arrived.

Filipek credits longtime friend Ellen Mills Pauley with starting the process of tracking down the two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star Filipek knew he'd been awarded, plus other medals he didn't know about. Local and state officials enlisted the aid of Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. to make sure Filipek was finally given the medals he deserved.

Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, state National Guard adjutant general, pinned the Bronze Star and Purple Heart on Filipek. Hoyer said lawmakers in Washington could take a cue from the way West Virginians work together to help their veterans.

"Walt, I want to tell you, your generation, and the ones that followed in Korea and Vietnam, you're the reason I'm here," Hoyer said.

The Battle of Okinawa raged for almost three months in the spring of 1945, and was the fiercest, deadliest battle of the Pacific War.

"We hit the beach April Fool's Day 1945, and they weren't fooling," Filipek told the crowd.

Okinawa was an island a few hundred miles from the shores of Japan, which the Japanese had sworn to defend to the end. By the end of the battle, 100,000 Japanese soldiers, more than 60,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of civilians would be casualties, including more than 12,000 American and about 75,000 Japanese dead. Within a few weeks, atomic bombs would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Japanese would surrender.

Filipek was wounded twice on the island, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart. Each time, he returned to the front lines.

The Bronze Star came from an action on June 12, 1945. "My squad leader went up onto a hill and got shot," Filipek said before the ceremony. "No one would go get him." Filipek said he went up the hill to bring his sergeant back.

But it was a little more complicated than that. Filipek was under fire from a Japanese machine gun the entire way. While he was on the hill, he noted the location of the machine gun so his fellow Marines could knock the gun out.

On Monday, Filipek was given those medals and a number of campaign medals he earned for his part in the war. They included the Combat Action Ribbon for soldiers who have been in combat; the Presidential Unit Citation for his unit, the 6th Marine Division; The Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal; American Campaign Medal for soldiers who served in a combat theater during the war; China Service Medal for those who served in and around China; Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, for soldiers who served in the Pacific Theater; and the World War II Victory Medal, awarded to those who served in the war.

St. Albans Mayor Dick Callaway said that, like many veterans, Filipek didn't talk much about the war. "Walt went 65 years before he told any of the stories you've heard here," Callaway said.

Between chats with the crowd, Hoyer and Capito, Filipek told a couple of war stories Monday. But he left out the bad parts.

One time on Okinawa, he recalled his unit being ordered across a coral reef to attack a neighboring island from which a Japanese artillery unit had been shelling Okinawa. They were told that either everyone would make it back, or no one would.

When they got there, they found that the Japanese had abandoned the position.

"We made it back," Filipek said. Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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