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Replacement medal honors World War II casualty

Oregon Military Museum donates Purple Heart to replace medal stolen from Gresham History Museum
by: Jim Clark Tom Metzger holds the replacement Purple Heart medal given to the Gresham History Museum to replace an original medal that was stolen from the museum's military display in March.

Some thefts are more heart wrenching than others.

Electronics or a car can be replaced.

But a Purple Heart medal?

Volunteers at the Gresham History Museum thought they were out of luck when they discovered a donated Purple Heart medal had been stolen from a military display in late March.

Instead, representatives from the Oregon Military Museum presented a replacement medal to the local museum just in time for Memorial Day, said Utahna Kerr, the Gresham museum's community history chairwoman.

The museum, located at 410 N. Main Ave., had just installed a display of military memorabilia from World War I and II. Included was the Purple Heart awarded posthumously to United States Army Air Force Pvt. Robert L. Jennings, Gresham's first World War II casualty.

Jennings died on Dec. 8, 1941, in Manila, Philippines, during the Japanese invasion on the Philippine Islands. Although the attack began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, it was already Dec. 8, in the Philippines because of the international date line. About nine hours after bombing Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes attacked Jennings's army base in the Philippines, killing many soldiers.

Jennings, who was attached to a bombing squadron in the Philippines, also served as a military policeman.

He was 21 when he died.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded Jennings the Purple Heart, which is given to members of the United States armed forces who are wounded in war or to the next of kin of those killed in action or who die of wounds received in action.

His medal was passed down to his second cousin Lois Metzger who, with her husband, Tom, donated it to the museum. However, the Plexiglas cover wasn't screwed down, so a slim arm managed to slip into the case and abscond with the medal.

The museum was closing up when Tom Metzger discovered it.

'What did you do with the Purple Heart?' he asked Kerr, assuming she'd moved it or there was some other logical explanation for its absence. 'And we just stood there because none of us had done anything with it, and it was gone.'

The realization that it was stolen took a while to set in. Museum officials didn't file a police report until April 21.'We just couldn't belief that someone would do that,' Metzger said.

Kerr contacted the Oregon Military Museum in Clackamas and asked curator Tracy Thoennes if the stolen medal could be replaced.

Thoennes said the museum often helps relatives of veterans who need help getting medals to honor family members.

'Many are wanting to do shadow boxes for veteran relatives when they die,' Thoennes said. 'Or they may want to order medals for each sibling who wants one. We point them in the right direction.'

Kerr told Thoennes about the theft and how the stolen medal honored the first Gresham resident killed in World War II. 'We wanted to be able to pay tribute to that,' Thoennes said.

Thoennes searched the Oregon Military Museum's collection and found a Purple Heart to donate to the Gresham museum on May 26.

'It's a little different, but it's the next best thing,' Metzger said, pointing out the extra bar on the new one. 'We're just glad we've got one that people can see now. Many patrons had never seen one.'

Metzger, 85, who served in the Navy during World War II, still hopes the culprit will do the right thing and return the original medal. 'We hope the article makes them feel guilty and they turn it back in,' Metzger said.

Until then, its replacement proudly sits on display in the museum, which is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, and from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday.