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Homeless Purple Heart medals get Texas museum home

Apr. 28, 2013 - 02:09PM   |  
The Purple Hearts awarded to sailors Howard Donald Seibert, left, and Orville E. Kimball are shown as part of the collection at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas. Awarded nearly 70 years ago, the medals recently resurfaced and were donated to the museum.
The Purple Hearts awarded to sailors Howard Donald Seibert, left, and Orville E. Kimball are shown as part of the collection at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas. Awarded nearly 70 years ago, the medals recently resurfaced and were donated to the museum. (Mike Graczyk/AP)
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FREDERICKSBURG, TEXAS — Little is known about long-deceased sailors Howard Donald Seibert and Orville E. Kimball except their fate.

The Navy men were killed in World War II in the Pacific, earning each of them a Purple Heart. But since neither sailor had any known relatives, for years the medals were left without a permanent home.

That all changed earlier this month when their Purple Hearts were ceremoniously added to the collection at the National Museum of the Pacific War in this Central Texas town.

The medals, engraved with the sailors’ names and a bit tarnished after decades of uncertain treatment, are the second set of wayward Purple Hearts to find a place of honor at the museum after an exhaustive search for relatives came up empty.

“It’s always a somber occasion when we get a donation like this, to think about what these represent,” Mike Lebens, chief curator at the museum about an hour’s drive west of Austin, said. “It makes us realize why we are here.”

In the background before a brief ceremony earlier this month, the muffled booms of cannon fire could be heard from behind walls where museum exhibits employ tape recordings to recreate the sound of battle amid displays of aircraft, a tank, uniforms, weapons, posters and even a submarine.

The medals join the museum’s nearly 1,000 Pacific War artifacts, highlighted by those of the Pacific Fleet’s commander in chief during the war, famed Adm. Chester Nimitz, who lived in Fredericksburg.

The Purple Hearts came to the museum primarily through the efforts of a full-time Vermont National Guard captain, Zachariah Fike. In 2009, Fike, from Burlington, Vt., began fulfilling a passion that’s become a cottage industry he calls Purple Hearts Reunited.

More typically, Fike’s investigations help other wayward Purple Hearts wind up with their rightful owners or relatives of the recipients. He gets the medals from antique stores, flea markets, online sales or they are sent to him because of publicity about his hobby.

“For some families, it brings closure to their lives 60 or 70 years later,” said Fike, who received a Purple Heart of his own for wounds he suffered in a rocket attack Sept. 11, 2010, while serving in Afghanistan.

“I get it, I collect antiques,” he said. “But for me, this is the one item I just can’t see anyone keeping for themself.”

The Purple Heart began with an order in August 1782 from Gen. George Washington, who saw the heart-shaped piece of purple cloth or silk as an award of merit. It fell out of use following the Revolutionary War until its revival in 1932, the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth.

It’s now a purple heart-shaped medal within a gold border containing a gold profile of Washington. Above the heart is the Washington Coat of Arms — a white shield with two red bars and three red stars — between sprays of green leaves. The back, all gold plate carries the words “FOR MILITARY MERIT.” The medals of Seibert and Kimball carry their names and service branch.

Their Purple Hearts are among about 1.7 million that have been awarded, according to the National Purple Heart Roll of Honor, in New Windsor, N.Y. Only a fraction of the recipients, however, have been documented.

“They really belong with the family of the person who received the Purple Heart,” said John Bircher III, spokesman for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a national organization of veterans who were wounded in combat. “But there are occasions when we just can’t find a living family member.”

That’s what happened in the cases of Seibert and Kimball. Fike could find no relatives; neither appears to have married.

Seibert, an orphan and fireman first class from Buffalo, N.Y., was a 20-year-old crewman on the submarine USS Tullibee. It was last seen March 14, 1944, when it left Midway Island after refueling and headed for the area north of Palau, a tiny island in the western Pacific. Navy records indicate one sailor from its 80-man crew survived when the submarine about a week later was struck apparently by one of its own torpedoes that made a circle route during an attack on a Japanese convoy. A foster mother was listed in records as Seibert’s next of kin. Fike found his Purple Heart in a box of medals that belonged either to a military friend of the sailor or a medals collector.

It is not clear how Kimball — a Native American seaman first class from Oso, Wash. — died during the war. His medal was in the effects of a member of the Washington State Fleet Reserve Association who died last year. It was given to the widow of a World War II Navy veteran who gave it to her grandson. The grandson discovered Fike, who in turn found Kimball was among several killed in action together on May 12, 1945, and who later were all buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.

“I never met them, they were brothers in arms, and I feel a connection,” Fike said. “That’s the least I can do as an American, pay my respects to them. That’s my way of saying thanks, carrying their medals to Texas.

“They’ll always have that home.”

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