Aug. 7 marks anniversary of America’s oldest military award
In advance of National Purple Heart Day, Congressman Brian Higgins honored five Western New York recipients of the Purple Heart Medal during a ceremony at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park.
Higgins said, “It’s an honor to recognize and to thank these heroic Western New Yorkers and Purple Heart recipients who each made such tremendous sacrifices for their country. These service members – Vincent Marmion, George T. Cannon Jr., Calvin Coolidge Young, Hugo Greinert and Salvatore Bonfante – represent our highest values, and it’s a privilege to be joined by members of their families to formally present their well-earned medals in advance of National Purple Heart Day.”
Higgins honored the following Purple Heart recipients whose families recently reached out for assistance with obtaining the military medals each earned while serving this nation.
Private First Class Vincent John Marmion
Private First Class Vincent John Marmion served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater of Operation during WWII.
He was born Oct. 29, 1924. At only 17 years of age, he enlisted in the USMC on Dec. 13, 1941, less than a week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Following training, he was assigned to Company F, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines unit. He was later sent to Wellington, New Zealand, where he became part of the 2nd Marine Division and received further training as a rifleman.
On Nov. 20, 1943, the 2nd Marine Division invaded Betio Island in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands. Marmion, then 19, was in the first wave of the attack. The island is only roughly one square mile in area but, during the short 74-hour battle, over 6,000 Japanese, Korean and American troops were killed. After surviving the bloody battle, Marmion and his unit sailed to Hilo, Hawaii, to build their own rest camp.
The division then sailed to Saipan, one of the Mariana Islands, on June 15, 1944. Marmion was killed in action as a result of a Japanese artillery attack during the Battle of Saipan on June 18, 1944, just a few months before his 20th birthday.
Marmion was awarded posthumously with a Purple Heart Medal for his death during enemy action in Saipan. He also earned the Combat Action Ribbon for service during WWII, the Presidential Unit Citation awarded to the 2nd Marine Division for courageous service on Tarawa, the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two Bronze Campaign Stars, and the World War II Victory Medal. He is buried in Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira.
Higgins formally presented Marmion’s medals to his brother, Daniel, and assisted the family with entering Marmion into the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor.
Private First Class George T. Cannon Jr.
George T. Cannon Jr. was born April 23, 1922, and enlisted in the U.S. Army at the age of 20. He initially worked as a clerk-typist, but eventually served in the European-African-Middle Eastern (EAME) Theater as a private first class combat infantryman.
Cannon was assigned to Company K, 473rd Infantry Regiment, which was formed in early 1945 as World War II moved into Italy. He fought in several campaigns, including Naples Foggia, Rome Arno, North Apennines and Po Valley.
Allied troops waged many major battles as they traversed the Italian Peninsula to make their way toward Germany. The Battle of Po Valley took place at the end of the war, from April 5 to May 8, 1945. On April 22, as he and his unit were approaching the Alps, Cannon was wounded in action. It was the day before his 23rd birthday. The brave sacrifices of Cannon and others led the Allies to a crucial victory that enabled them to continue into northern Italy. German forces ultimately surrendered the next month.
On Sept. 13, Cannon was honorably discharged after nearly three years of service. He was awarded a Purple Heart for his injury at the Battle of Po Valley. He also received the Bronze Star Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with four Service Stars, the World War II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge 1st Award, and the Honorable Service Lapel Button for WWII.
After his military career, Cannon worked as an accountant at Kistner Concrete in Buffalo. He passed away on June 5, 1993, and is buried at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Cheektowaga.
Higgins entered Cannon’s name into the Purple Heart Hall of Honor and presented his family with the overdue service medals.
Stewards Mate First Class Calvin Coolidge Young
Calvin Coolidge Young was born Nov. 8, 1924 in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and left his family’s farm in 1944 to enlist in the U.S. Navy. Young would serve for 20 months in the Navy and eventually rose to the rank of stewards mate first class. The stewards branch, responsible for feeding and serving officers, was a racially segregated unit of the U.S. Navy. At that time, the stewards branch was comprised of African Americans and foreign nationals who were recruited overseas.
Young was one of more than 2.5 million African American men who were drafted during World War II. The U.S. Navy was the last military branch to admit black soldiers and volunteers, but, in March 1944, the first 13 African-American Naval officers were commissioned. Known as the “Golden Thirteen,” the officers were not allowed to command white sailors. Overall, 167,000 African-Americans served in the Navy during the war, initially as mess attendants and cooks.
On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 to end racial segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces. This monumental event set the stage for grassroots initiatives to launch the civil rights movement and create legislative support for racial equality in the U.S. Young determinedly served his country despite segregation. Higgins’ camp said, “He and his fellow African-American soldiers embodied strength and resilience and showed us all the importance of standing united as a nation.”
Young participated in the occupation phase of the Okinawa Shima operation. He was a survivor of the USS LST-447, a tank landing ship that was sunk by a Japanese kamikaze attack off the Okinawa beachhead. Young earned a Purple Heart Medal for the injuries suffered.
For his valor and bravery in his service to the U.S., Young earned many other awards: the Combat Action Ribbon for service while under enemy fire, the Navy Occupation Service Medal for activity in enemy territories during World War II, Honorable Service Lapel Pin for being honorably discharged after the end of World War II, the China Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.
Unfortunately, Young never personally received his hard-won service medals. Higgins was honored to finally present awards to Young’s daughter, Lois.
Technical Sergeant Hugo Greinert
Hugo Greinert of North Tonawanda was drafted to the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942 at the age of 21. He served as a radioman and waist gunner in the 722nd Squadron with the 450th Bombardment Group during World War II. Around the same time, two of his cousins voluntarily enlisted in the same unit and many of Greinert’s friends and family members were also drafted for service in the war. After completing training, they were assigned to the Mediterranean Theater of Operation’s base in Southern Italy.
The 450th was primarily tasked with destroying Axis supply facilities across the European Theater. As such, the nature of their work was risky and dangerous. However, the unit successfully completed 274 missions across Italy, Germany, France, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary and the Balkans, and won a series of Distinguished Unit Citations for outstanding work.
Greinert went on to serve in many major battles and campaigns in the European Theater, including Naples-Foggia, Rome-Arno, Northern Apennines, Southern France, Rhineland and Air Offensive Europe.
His plane was shot down over enemy territory on Feb. 25, 1944, during Operation Big Week. This operation sought to destroy German aircraft production capabilities by executing a raid on the Prufening Aircraft Factory in Regensburg, Germany. On this mission, Greinert was with a mix of soldiers from his own unit, the 722nd, and the 721st of the 450th Bomb Group.
The plane Greinert and his crew flew during Operation Big Week came from the 721st Squadron. The oil pressure was high on one of the engines, but the Army needed all hands on deck for this important operation, so they took a chance and flew the plane. About halfway through the journey, Greinert and his crew had to abandon their formation when they realized the damaged plane would never make it to Regensburg. They were then met by enemy resistance and shot down over Ljubljana, Yugoslavia.
In April of 1941, the Yugoslav Army surrendered to Axis forces who quickly took control of the country. The Partisans and the Chetniks were two major resistance movements formed by the Yugoslav people. The Allies ultimately partnered with the Partisans, providing them with much-needed aid and resources. The Partisans, in turn, agreed to help rescue downed Allied airmen. The Partisans found Greinert and the rest of the crew in March of 1944 and helped them to evade enemy capture. The resistance group allowed Greinert and the other American soldiers to eat their food, stay in their homes, and borrow their weapons. With the Partisans’ help, Greinert worked his way through Yugoslavia until making it back to a U.S. base in Italy in May 1944.
After his service, Greinert returned to his home in North Tonawanda with his wife, Esther. His bravery was recognized with a series of impressive decorations and citations. He received a Purple Heart Air Medal for wounds received in action on March 29, 1944, as well as the Air Medal with 1 Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, the Good Conduct Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one Bronze Service Star and one Silver Service Star, the World War II Victory Medal, the Honorable Service Lapel Button, and the Army Aviation Badge Basic.
Greinert and Matthew Alan Kreib are the coauthors of an essay titled “Filling a Gap: Authorship and Identity in Collaborative Autobiography” that relays his experiences in Yugoslavia.
Higgins presented Greinert’s family with his Purple Heart Medal and the six additional medals.
Sergeant Salvatore Bonfante
Salvatore Bonfante was born in Sicily, Italy on May 24, 1944, but came to the U.S. in the late 1950s. He was drafted to the U.S. military on April 18, 1967. Bonfante was a member of an Army infantry unit with a specialization in light weapons infantry and served in the Delta of Vietnam. He now resides in Amherst with his wife and two daughters and owns a gas station on the corner between Niagara and Bird streets called Carm and Sal Gas Station.
Through his service in the Vietnam War, he earned a Purple Heart Medal with one bronze oak leaf cluster signifying that he received two Purple Hearts. In addition, he received the Air Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge 1st Award, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Ribbon with Device from 1960, the Expert Badge with a Rifle Bar, the Sharpshooter Badge with a Rifle Bar, and the Sharpshooter Badge with a Submachine Gun Bar.
Bonfante contacted the congressman after his original set of medals was stolen from his home. After expediting their shipment to his Buffalo office, Higgins was able to return Bonfante’s two U.S. Army Purple Hearts and nine other well-deserved medals and awards to him in advance of Purple Heart Day 2019.
In addition to the families of the five Purple Heart recipients, Higgins was joined by Buffalo & Erie County Military and Naval Park President Paul Marzello, U.S. Army Buffalo Recruiting Company Honor Guard and Cmdr. Capt. Randy Warren, members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, members of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York, and fellow Western New York veterans.
National Purple Heart Day is observed on Aug. 7, because, on that day in 1782, Gen. George Washington created the Badge of Military Merit – a piece of heart-shaped purple cloth embroidered with the word “merit” in white thread. This award was the predecessor to the modern-day Purple Heart Medal, which Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur implemented in 1932 on Washington’s 200th birthday. By 1944, it was officially developed into today’s version.
The Purple Heart – the oldest American military award – is presented to service members of the U.S. armed forces who have been wounded or killed as a direct result of enemy action.