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Surprised soldier gets Bronze Star

This article is reprinted from the Macomb Eagle. It appeared in the Oct. 22 issue.


Macomb Eagle staff writer, Macomb IL

On Wednesday afternoon George McCullough dug his old military uniform out of the cedar chest and put it on for the first time in 60 years.

After squeezing back into the brownish-green trousers, buttoning up the shirt — which was a bit snug in the neck — and knotting the light brown tie, he looked almost as soldierly as he would have the day he was discharged.

Six decades have thinned McCullough's hair and turned it white, and his gait is considerably slower, but in that uniform he still looks like an American infantryman, the type of man that proved to be the Nazis' worst nightmare.

Pinned above McCullough's heart, amidst the muted hues of green and brown, dangled a Bronze Star and an Army of Occupation medal with a Germany clasp, proof that, indeed, he had done his part to bring down one of the most evil regimes in history.

The medals — unlike the soldier and his uniform — are relatively new. McCullough, 79, earned them on the battlefields of Europe, but it took his sons, Bill and Bob, to battle through the military bureaucracy to get their dad the recognition he deserved.

Have a Heart?

Bill actually began his quest for a somewhat different purpose. During Christmas 2002, the elder McCullough mentioned that he had never been awarded a Purple Heart for the injuries he sustained in combat. His hands are still scarred, and his leg has a small hole where the shrapnel entered. Bill, who lives in Montana, told his father he would look into it.

McCullough also mentioned that, due to errors in the Army's records system, he had been discharged as a corporal instead of a staff sergeant, his actual rank. Further complicating matters was a 1974 fire at Army offices in St. Louis. McCullough suspected his records had been destroyed.

Bill contacted U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, and for the next three years they worked in tandem to get George McCullough a Purple Heart. Letters were sent and papers were filed. Bill even contacted President Bush's office. All the while he kept his parents updated.

On Oct. 7, McCullough received a package that, to his surprise, contained not one, but two medals — the Bronze Star and the Army of Occupation medal. But no Purple Heart.

A week later he received a letter from the Department of the Army explaining that he had been awarded a Bronze Star "for meritorious achievement in ground combat against the armed enemy during World War II in the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater of Operations." The Army of Occupation medal with a Germany clasp was a reward for his service in postwar Germany.

There was no mention of the McCulloughs' quest for a Purple Heart.

He didn't get what he was looking for, but McCullough deserved both medals he received. Army records indicate that he served in the European Theater from Feb. 8 to July 13, 1945. During that time he saw plenty of combat, and many of his fellow soldiers were killed.

His infantry division, the 99th, was among the first to cross the Rhine into Germany. It was involved in the battle for the Ludendorf Bridge at Remagen. McCullough recalls crossing the bridge in the middle of the night, with the Nazis raining fire on them. Not long after, the bridge was destroyed.

In spite of his combat service, McCullough didn't realize he was eligible for the Bronze Star, which is awarded for "heroism or meritorious service in nonaerial combat."

Still waiting

As for the Purple Heart, he's still waiting. Johnny "Smokey" Marcisin, a medic from Connecticut who treated McCullough's wounds, has tried to help by writing letters. McCullough even has letters from his mother in which she discusses his injuries. So far, nothing has worked.

A Purple Heart is awarded to any soldier for a wound that is, among other possible reasons, "caused by enemy bullet, shrapnel, or other projectile created by enemy action."

But Isabelle McCullough thinks part of the reason her husband hasn't received one is that his wounds weren't severe enough. Marcisin said severely wounded soldiers were shipped to field hospitals, but in McCullough's case he was patched up and sent back into battle. Consequently, there may be no record of his injuries.

Marcisin hopes to change that with his letters.

"If — I'm saying 'if' — he ever gets a Purple Heart, that will be thanks to Johnny Marcisin," Isabelle said.

His uniform still bears the stripes of the staff sergeant, but in the eyes of the military McCullough was a corporal. When he was discharged, McCullough was told they had no record of his promotion to the higher rank. Isabelle said her husband is not that concerned with the situation.

"It's only about $15 a month difference in pay," McCullough said.

He might not have gotten the medal he wanted, but McCullough is excited about the medals he received. And so are his friends. The McCulloughs are members of Colchester's First Baptist Church, and Pastor Dennis Clements held a special ceremony during the Oct. 10 worship service to honor the old soldier.

"He was a little teary-eyed," Isabelle said of her husband.

McCullough, who hearkens from an era when men weren't supposed to be emotional, denied it.