Heroes Living Among Us
Purple Heart veterans share their stories so that we may understand the perils of war
Telling stories, says Doug Kemper, is the bread and butter of his teaching experience. Kemper, 62, teaches Junior ROTC classes at Phelps High School in Pikeville. When he tells the students about his experiences in Vietnam and his 30 years in the military, “You can hear a pin drop in that classroom.”
Kemper received a Purple Heart in 1970, when he was an infantryman in Vietnam. Five miles from the Cambodian border, his unit came under fire, and he was hit with shrapnel in the forehead and across his shoulder. “Someone yelled ‘Incoming’ and I didn’t duck fast enough,” Kemper says.
He woke up in a military hospital with a Purple Heart pinned to his gown. A month later he was back in the trenches.
Kemper stayed in the military for 30 years. It was his life, he says, and it’s important to encourage young people to consider the military.
It’s also important, though, to help them understand just what a hard life it can be, especially if they are called upon to fight. And his students listen. “They are interested in their heritage and why we fought,” Kemper says. “I tell them, if we hadn’t won World War II, we’d be speaking German right now.”
Stories from veterans who have earned the Purple Heart medal remind Americans about the heroes living among us, and help us to understand more about the harrowing perils of war.
There are plenty of people to talk to in Kentucky. About 3,000 people in Kentucky have been awarded the Purple Heart medal, according to David Price of Frankfort, former vice commander of Region 2 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Some 575 Purple Heart veterans are members of his organization in Kentucky. Four recipients are women, all awarded Purple Hearts in Iraq. World War II veterans make up more than half the members, Price says, followed by veterans who served in Vietnam and Korea.
As the World War II generation grows older, Price and his compatriots find themselves increasingly called upon to tell the stories of how they received their Purple Hearts. Purple Heart veterans like Kemper and Price should tell their stories, says David Worley of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs. The stories are an education for the next generation, Worley says.
Purple Heart medals, Worley says, are important to help recognize the incredible bravery of those who sign up for the military. “It’s recognizing that someone, a man or a woman, at one point when they were fired upon, they stepped up,” Worley says.
“They answered the call…When you see someone with a Purple Heart, that’s someone who commands your respect. You should walk up and say thank you.”
World War II Purple Heart veterans like Jack Norwine and Leroy Spaulding consider themselves lucky to be alive and fortunate to be able to tell their stories today.
Jack Norwine of Calvert City, as with many Purple Heart veterans, knows that it was only good timing that kept him alive.
Originally from Oklahoma, Norwine, 81, joined the military in 1943, just after he finished high school. His crew was tight, 10 men who had all trained for nearly a year before they arrived at the base in Italy. Each had a certain job; there was a pilot and co-pilot and gunners. Norwine was a waist gunner on the right side of the plane, having to stand up to fire his 50-caliber machine gun. From Italy, the crew regularly flew to various targets all over Europe.
The base was a four-hour flight from the target that day in July 1944. Over Vienna, Norwine’s job was to lie down on the floor of the plane and drop tinsel-like strips of aluminum foil from the plane to confuse the enemy radar. He was doing just that when an anti-aircraft flak (artillery fire) hit his arm, leaving a golf-ball-size hole. Fellow crew members applied a tourniquet to stop the massive bleeding.
Norwine’s plane headed back to Italy and he was taken to a military hospital. Norwine spent most of those first few days receiving transfusions, much of the time unconscious. Famous boxer Joe Louis gave him his Purple Heart.
One month and three days later, Norwine’s crew was hit while flying over Czechoslovakia. His replacement and four others were killed. The five remaining crew members became prisoners of war. Norwine was left with guilt and grief. “You feel like that even though you got injured, for the time you were out, you weren’t around to help your buddies,” Norwine says. “You felt like a team, and part of the team was missing.”
About seven months after his first Purple Heart, Norwine earned a second when a shell came through his plane, dropping the temperature so low his headphones froze to his ears. He suffered hearing loss and skin damage and was awarded his second Purple Heart for that mission.
Norwine’s experience left him with a sense of loss of his friends, but also with a sense of purpose. He returned to the States and his large family of five children, and says he was so grateful for them he spoiled them. “We tried to give them the things we didn’t have when we were younger,” Norwine says.
Leroy Spaulding, 83, of Frankfort, also served in the Army in World War II and shares his stories of war.
Spaulding left high school to join the military with a close friend in 1941. In 1943, the military sent him to Sicily, where he landed on his 21st birthday.
Spaulding’s duty was as a radio operator, most of the time with the forward observer party. There were four in the party at the time, and they were situated in front of the infantry to be the eyes for the artillery. He would pick out the coordinates of a target and call it back via radio. The artillery unit would fire. If they missed, the radio operators would send adjusted coordinates back until the target was hit.
At that time, the German military was attacking forces on the ground in Anzio, Italy, with bombs dropped from planes. On February 22, 1944, his unit was attacking a target on the ground when they heard planes overhead. They knew the planes were German by the sound of the motors, Spaulding says. The flashes of light from the ground artillery fire lit their company up like a beacon for Germans who were hungry for a target. One plane flew alone, and that was the plane that attacked his company. Six were hit; four survived with wounds and two were killed.
Spaulding, who was hit with shrapnel in the ankle, was patched up at the first-aid tent. Spaulding considers his wound minor. He received his Purple Heart when he was discharged later that year.
Spaulding, the past state commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, regularly speaks at high schools and opens up his book of memories for the students, allowing them to ask him anything.
“This is the only way you’re going to find out what’s going to happen,” Spaulding says. “Your teachers don’t know, because a lot of them weren’t even born then. There was a long time when I could not talk about things. If you talk to a veteran, you’ll find out what happened. You all need to know the history of what happened.”
PURPLE HEART LICENSE PLATES
More than 2,040 veterans who have Purple Heart medals have signed up for the Purple Heart license plate in Kentucky, according to David Worley of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs.
To get the plate, veterans must prove they were awarded a Purple Heart by the military. Purple Heart veterans who want a Purple Heart license plate need to take a copy of their military discharge paperwork, called a DD 214, to their county clerk’s office. There is a $20 annual fee for the plate. Out of those fees, $5 goes to a Veterans Trust Fund, used to help Kentucky veterans, Worley says.
PURPLE HEART HIGHWAYS AND TRAILS
You’ve seen the signs along the highway proclaiming Interstate 64 a Purple Heart Trail. But what’s that mean, anyway?
The Purple Heart Trail is a state-by-state effort to recognize the efforts of veterans who have fought in wars and received a Purple Heart for their injuries.
“More than anything else, it is recognition that our troops are overseas in harm’s way,” says David Price, former national vice commander of Region 2 for the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
Price lives in Frankfort, and his region covers 13 states, including Kentucky. “It’s a reminder to people that when you go into harm’s way, bad things can happen to you, and that’s where the Purple Heart comes in. It also recognizes those who have served. To me, it is support of the ones who are there now.”
About 37 states have a highway named for the Purple Heart, according to Jim Casti, who now serves as the national director of Purple Heart Highways and Trails and lives in Newport, N.C.
Interstate 95 from north to south along the East Coast is named for the Purple Heart in every state it runs through. New Hampshire will dedicate its Purple Heart Memorial Trail on Veterans Day this month.
Kentucky designated Interstate 64, which runs east to west from West Virginia to Indiana, a Purple Heart Trail in August 2003, Price says.
Next time you pass one of the signs, say thank you to all the veterans who are currently fighting and to those who have returned home, wounded but safe.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: DID YOU RECEIVE YOUR PURPLE HEART?
If you were injured as a result of enemy conflict but never received your award, click here: Purple Heart