CHARLOTTESVILLE — Seventy years after he was wounded twice and taken captive during a brutal battle in World War II, 93-year-old James M. Garnett stood as tall as he could Friday afternoon and finally accepted the medals he hadn’t known he was due.
A Bronze Star Medal. A Purple Heart.
When the military lawyers and other guests at the Army’s law school on the University of Virginia campus finally stopped clapping, Garnett cleared his throat, let go of his walker, and said: “Serving my country in World War II was honor enough for me, as it was for countless other service men and women. I accept these medals in the name of all who served and especially for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
More clapping. Evelyn, his college sweetheart and wife of 67 years, sat nearby with a bouquet of roses. Garnett took it all in, a surprised smile on his face.
“I don’t think I deserve all the attention I’m getting,” he said, “but thanks anyway.”
Garnett is among the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, a conflict that took the lives of more than 400,000 of them. Nearly 1.6 million veterans of that war are still alive, according to census data. But their numbers are dwindling.
The ceremony honoring Pvt. Garnett’s Army service was the result of an extraordinary discovery his son-in-law, Fred Craft, made last year while looking through old papers in a family safe-deposit box: discharge documents listing medals the former rifleman was to receive.
“Holy mackerel,” Craft remembered saying to himself, “he’s never been awarded these medals.”
Craft, a Vietnam veteran who, along with his wife, once worked on the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, decided it was time. The Crafts, who live in Georgia, turned to some old connections on the Hill for help. The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School was chosen because Garnett and his wife live in Charlottesville and traveling to Washington, at their ages, wasn’t a viable option.
Army Brig. Gen. Stuart W. Risch outlined Garnett’s life story: He graduated from U-Va. in 1942 and went to work in the District for the Board of Economic Warfare, which oversaw procurement for the war effort. The next year, he tried to join the Navy but was turned down because of poor eyesight. The Army didn’t mind.
Garnett was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 143d Infantry Regiment, 36 Infantry Division, and his first combat mission was the invasion of Italy. The troops went ashore near Salerno on Sept. 9, 1943. Italy had surrendered the day before, and hopes were high for an easy and swift campaign. Germany had other ideas.
The Germans, holding the high ground above the beach, hit the American troops hard. The next few days saw intense battles between the German and Allied forces. On Sept. 13, the Germans counterattacked, assaulting Garnett’s regiment on both flanks and killing, wounding or capturing 500 men. Garnett, then 22, was wounded twice and taken captive.
He was held by the Germans in three Stalags until April 22, 1945, when the Soviet Red Army seized the prison camp where he was being held. The Russians kept him until May 5, and he eventually was shipped to the States to recover at an Atlanta hospital. He was honorably discharged in November 1945.
Garnett was supposed to receive numerous honors: a Bronze Star Medal, a Purple Heart with one Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, the Combat Infantryman Badge, and several other medals and badges. But Garnett didn’t look closely at his papers and wanted to get on with his life, his son-in-law said. And back then, with millions of soldiers leaving the service, there wasn’t the time or the means to have medal ceremonies anyway.
“Many of them just said, ‘I’m proud of my service, but it’s time to go home and be a civilian,’ ” said retired Col. Fred Borch, the regimental historian and archivist for the JAG Corps.
After the war, Garnett worked in Chicago for Kimberly-Clark and then in New York as an executive for Moody’s Investors Service and later Standard and Poor’s. He married Evelyn, and they had two children. Garnett did not talk much about his service. In 1980, the Garnetts retired to Charlottesville, and James volunteered to do tax work for the elderly.
The war receded further and further into his past.
A few days ago, Garnett’s family told him about the medals and the ceremony.
He said, “For me?”
“He is just this quintessential Virginia gentleman, who never sought any recognition nor did he think he was even worthy of any recognition,” Craft said. “He’s an extraordinary man.”
Garnett, who has recovered from a recent stroke, and his wife left their wheelchairs in the hallway and marched into the ceremony using walkers. Risch told the audience that “some soldiers slipped through the cracks” and that Garnett was owed more than just the medals.
“I want to give him what he never got — that warm welcome home, that recognition for a job well done, that thank-you from an overall grateful nation at the time,” Risch said. Garnett is “a sterling example of what we all know is the greatest generation.”
There was a rousing ovation.
“Thank you all so much,” Garnett said.
The general shook his hand and said, “Welcome home.”