Historians on hunt for Purple Heart stories

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

VAILS GATE, N.Y. -- Cpl. Robert Frink was captured in Germany during the final months of World War II. He and two comrades were forced to swap uniforms with their Waffen SS captors, lined up and shot in the back of the head.

Miraculously, the bullet entered Frink's neck and exited his cheek without shearing his spine or jugular vein. He even felt a German kick him as he lay bleeding. "Believe me, I played dead!" After his captors left, Frink fled, found some Canadian troops, and was saved.

The wound earned him a Purple Heart.

Sixty-one years later, it is earning him an entry on the "Roll of Honor," a database being compiled for a museum honoring Purple Heart recipients. When the museum, the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, opens in November, visitors will be able to search out facts and stories about soldiers wounded or killed. New York officials heading the project think -- though no one knows for sure -- there are up to 1.7 million soldiers who belong on the list.

So they're putting out a call: If you or a family member has been awarded the Purple Heart, they want you.

More precisely, they want your information for the most comprehensive list of American military sacrifice.

"Somewhere, in every family tree, this is going to hit home," said state Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro.

The Hall of Honor is being built at a woodsy historic site north of New York City where George Washington's army camped toward the end of the Revolutionary War. It was here in 1782 that Washington created the Badge of Military Merit, which he decreed would be "the figure of a heart in purple cloth."

"The end of the war was coming," said Michael Clark, manager of the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site. "He thought that this was an opportunity to recognize the troops before the army was disbanded and went home."

The original badge was awarded for exceptional performance, not battle wounds. Surviving records show three sergeants received the medal, though Clark said more soldiers might have been honored.

The badge fell into disuse after the war, but was reintroduced as the Purple Heart in 1932. Thousands of World War I veterans received Purple Hearts retroactively -- as did a few very old Civil War veterans. In 1942, Purple Hearts were restricted to those "wounded in action against any enemy."

How many have been awarded, no one knows. Clark has heard of wounded World War II soldiers told to simply grab one from a box. But a tally of the wounded and dead from World War I on is about 1.7 million, most from World War II.

It's impossible to find and verify every single award. But the modest staff at the state historic site is trying. After quietly collecting information for years, parks officials in March put out a widespread plea for veterans and families to share stories and materials for hall. Clark said about 5,000 responses have come in, everything from e-mails from Iraq to packages with typed stories and sepia-tinged photos.

The Purple Heart Hall of Honor is at nysparks.state.ny. us/heritage/purple_hrt.asp.

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