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Badge of honor

Six decades later, WW II veteran Ralph Walker will be presented medals he earned
by: Jaime Valdez, Ralph T. Walker will be honored today for his service in World War II. More than six decades after being liberated from a prisoner of war camp, he will be presented with medals and honors.

Recognition is long overdue for World War II veteran Ralph T. Walker.

It's been more than 61 years since British troops liberated Walker and other prisoners of war from a camp near Essen, Germany.

The former first sergeant of the 45th Thunderbird Division, G Company, 180th Infantry Regiment, returned to the United States and was honorably discharged in 1945 without ever receiving a dozen medals, bronze stars and badges he had earned for his combat service.

Although the 87-year-old Beaverton man has lived a full life in the six decades that have passed, this summer, with encouragement from his bowling buddies Gene Cole and Herman White, he took steps to revisit a chapter in his life not yet complete.

Walker contacted the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs and ordered the medals he had earned including a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Prisoner of War Medal, Combat Infantryman's Badge and Presidential Unit Citation Commemorative Medal, among several others.

'He was reluctant to inquire about them,' said Cole, another World War II veteran. 'When he finally did, he found out he had a chest full of them coming.

'At the end of the war, all he wanted was to get home. I think it's great and that it's time he gets a little public recognition for his efforts in World War II.'

Walker's family and friends will gather this afternoon at Sunset Lanes Bowling in Cedar Hills for a special medal presentation beginning at 3 p.m.

The presentation is just after Walker's regular Thursday game with the Hot Shot Dreamers Bowling League.

Jim Willis, director of Oregon's Department of Veterans Affairs, will present Walker with the medals.

'I'm very honored to be able to make this presentation,' Willis said. 'I hope this brings closure to what he did for our country and provides some recognition that he will be able to pass down to his family.

'The medals he earned for his service in World War II are part of his family's history. He truly is another hero of our Greatest Generation.'

Didn't go willingly

Walker was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941 when he was 23.

'I didn't go willingly,' he recalled. 'I was working at a winery at the time.'

Although joining the military was not his choice, it did not keep him from taking on leadership responsibilities and moving quickly up the ranks.

Following basic training at Camp Roberts, he was assigned to a cadre as a training officer.

He also became a supply sergeant and tech sergeant, before being transferred to another base in Florida where he was the senior instructor.

Around the same time, he married his sweetheart Lillian Gemma. The two recently celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary.

Walker was eventually called up to replace another soldier in combat, serving in Europe. He was shipped to Naples, Italy, and then to Marseille, France, in August 1944, where he joined the 45th Thunderbird Division and became a platoon sergeant.

He led the platoon in several missions until the day he was captured with three others by a German heavy combat patrol Dec. 6, 1944, in a town called Mertzwiller near the German border.

'It was 6:15 a.m.,' he said. 'We'd been sleeping in a potato shed. Artillery had been ongoing, then the artillery just let up and the Germans were right on top of us. There were 15 to 20 Germans pointing rifles at our throats.

'We didn't have a chance to get out of there.'

The day he was captured, a piece of shrapnel hit the inside of his left ankle, wounding Walker.

'It was bleeding a lot, but I could still walk,' he said. 'It was not a serious wound, but I had to treat it myself.'

Walker was a prisoner of war until April 26, 1945. During that time, he was shuffled from one camp to another and, in some cases, forced to walk about 150 miles in near blizzard conditions.

'Being a prisoner, you are cut off from everything,' Walker said. 'You're cut off from your family - cut off from the world.

'You live in a different world entirely. It's a very harry deal. I was just trying to stay alive and stay healthy.'

He said unlike others, he wasn't physically mistreated, other than to be denied food, forced to walk in blizzard conditions and undergo several interrogations.

To pass time, he kept a journal, gambled with other prisoners, drew a map tracking what was happening in the war and worked with other prisoners to dig a hole under the building they were kept in the event the camp was taken.

On the day he was liberated, he was elated.

'We knew it was over and that they were on their last legs,' Walker said. 'There was a radio that we'd get information from.'

After British troops transported Walker and other prisoners of war to Belgium, they returned to the United States.

Walker returned to his wife and family and began a career with several railroad companies.

'My wife went through all this with me,' Walker said. 'She lived through it too. She's a wonderful person. She had to wait for me. She should be the one getting the medals.'

Of all the honors he will be presented today, it's the Combat Infantryman's Badge that means the most to Walker.

'I'm more proud of that badge than anything,' he said. 'The others are nice, but this one shows that I put my life on the line for my country.

'It brings back a lot of memories.'

Willis said he hopes other veterans and their families will take time to collect the honors they are due.

'We're seeing a lot more World War II veterans ordering their medals and ribbons for their family,' Willis said. 'The medals are not going to change who they are as a person, but they are a record for posterity of what they did as a person, and I think that is very important.

'When we honor a veteran anywhere, we are truly honoring veterans everywhere.'