ATHOL — The wounds Thomas Copeland suffered a lifetime ago were finally honored Tuesday when he was presented a Purple Heart for his sacrifice.
Friends, family and representatives from the military, including commanders of two National Guard infantry regiments, gathered at Mr. Copeland's bedside at his home on Silver Lake Road as he was presented with the medal for wounds he suffered in 1944 in the Bougainville Campaign in the Solomon Islands during World War II.
The 89-year-old former soldier was wounded in fighting near Hill 260 on Bougainville when he volunteered to go forward to check the perimeter wire. While out ahead of his unit, he was hit by Japanese artillery fire. He and his family have been trying for many years to get medals he should have been awarded during the war. Recently the effort took on greater urgency. He has cancer.
“We had to do this today,” said Fran White, Mr. Copeland's son. “The hospice said he just has a few days.”
Mr. Copeland can barely talk or hear very well, but he smiled as he was greeted by well-wishers, including Col. Chris Gramstorff, commander of the National Guard's 181st Infantry Regiment and Col. Ron Cuddles, commander of the 182nd Infantry Regiment. The 182nd is the same regiment Mr. Copeland served with in Bougainville.
Col. Gramstorff also presented Mr. Copeland with a black Combat Infantrymen's Badge.
Mr. White said having the representation from the Army and the community at the ceremony meant the world to Mr. Copeland and his family.
“We can't tell you how honored we were to have everybody here,” he said. “You have never met a man more proud to have served his country.”
In the battle for Bougainville, Mr. Copeland's actions and injuries qualified him for the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantryman's Badge.
He received the Combat Infantryman's Badge earlier and was finally presented with the Bronze Star in 2004, but information on his Purple Heart was first overlooked and then lost when a 1973 fire in the National Personnel Resources Center in St. Louis, Mo., destroyed millions of military records.
“We've been trying to do this for 60 years,” Mr. White said.
The family has worked with local legislators and contacted veterans officials in Washington, D.C., but did not get far until they contacted the Veterans Administration's Boston office. Florence R. Copeland said employees in that office pledged to get him the medal and they did, rushing it to his home when family members called and said he had taken a turn for the worse.
“I couldn't wait for him to get that medal,” she said. “I wanted him to at least know he got it.”
The family had long known he was qualified for the medal, but they were rejected by the Department of Defense initially because the paperwork that would have indicated it, was damaged in the fire.
Cousin Jim Garner of Phillipston said what made it more difficult was that unlike many who were wounded and taken out of battle to be treated, Mr. Copeland stayed in the fight.
“He told me there were other people with their arms blown off. He knew he was injured but he kept on fighting,” Mr. Garner said. “He figured they need help more than he did.”
Mr. Copeland stayed in the fight until his regiment was replaced.
Alan W. Bowers, former national commander of the Disabled American Veterans, said Mr. Copeland was a tough and determined soldier who was Injured from shrapnel and with a serious knee injury he suffered during the many months of fighting.
While Mr. Bowers was researching his book “On Duty,” he said, Mr. Copeland told him that when they went to leave Bougainville, they had to climb up the netting on the side of the ship carrying a full pack and weapon.
Still injured with his shrapnel wound and suffering a knee injury, he climbed up into the ship, collapsing on the deck. That was when they finally put him in a hospital bed. When they reached the Philippines, a doctor declared him unable to return to combat and he returned home.
In 1946, Mr. Copeland was mustered out of the Army in 1946 and a few years later married his wife. They have been married for 61 years.
After the war, he became active in veterans organizations and is still chaplain of several of those organizations.
The day after Tom received his Purpl Heart he passed away to join his fellow Comrades.