Las Vegas Sun

November 24, 2014

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Where are his medals, he wants to know

Lawrence Bennett does not need a medal to remind him of his service to his country.

A small indentation on his forehead caused by shrapnel reminds him of it every time he looks in the mirror.

Still, a medal - any medal - would be nice.

The 92-year-old Marine veteran, who served as a stretcher bearer on Okinawa during World War II and says he was wounded three times in two days, believes he is entitled to a Purple Heart.

Bennett also believes he deserves a Bronze Star for guiding fellow Marines under fire through a narrow ravine to rescue 40 wounded comrades.

"I've been trying to get these medals since 1946. I once even wrote the president," said Bennett, a resident of the Willow Creek assisted living center in northwest Las Vegas.

"Over the years, people have tried to help me get the medals, but someone would drop the ball , and I'd have to start all over."

Bennett recently wrote Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., asking for help. A Reid staff member was assigned to look into the matter.

Bob Herbert, Reid's senior policy adviser and one of four people on the senator's staff who helps veterans get overlooked honors, said it is not a complicated process - just a time-consuming one.

Reid's office gets about 12 requests a year for overlooked honors and about half result in the awarding of medals, Herbert said.

On a typical medal inquiry, Reid's office obtains a privacy waiver signed by the veteran, then contacts the legislative liaison for the appropriate service. That person submits the completed claim to the Defense Department to confirm whether it is legitimate, Herbert said.

"They then can take months or even years. They don't rush them (inquiries) , and they don't hand out these medals like candy," said Herbert, who also is deputy commander of the Nevada Army National Guard. "These are important medals, and the military is very protective of them."

The more distant the veteran is from his particular war, the harder it is to prove his claim, Herbert said, noting that key witnesses often have died.

In his book "Ernie's War," famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle credited Bennett and another Marine with capturing the first two Japanese prisoners of war whom Pyle saw in all his travels along the front lines.

On April 5, 1945, Bennett, a company cook, was helping carry a wounded Marine when he was hit in the head by shrapnel. He was treated, returned to the battlefield that same day and was struck again.

That led to what perhaps is Bennett's best evidence for the Purple Heart - a handwritten letter dated Nov. 3, 1946, on Navy letterhead and signed by Lt. Robert Heevens, the battalion surgeon who treated Bennett both times.

"His quick recovery (from concussions) and insistence that he return to his duties as stretcher bearer caused us not to evacuate him to a rear echelon hospital," the doctor wrote.

Bennett said he was wounded again on April 7 when, during a rescue mission, shrapnel tore into his right leg.

During that operation Bennett captured a Japanese solider. Pyle wrote that it also was the first one Bennett had encountered.

Pyle was killed by a sniper 11 days later.

Although the military has not recognized Bennett for his wartime efforts, the Ernie Pyle Museum in Pyle's hometown of Dana, Ind., has.

In 1995 Bennett and his late wife, Rosalla, attended as guests of the museum a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of Pyle's death. Three years earlier, Bennett had donated to the museum the rifle, bayonet and Japanese flag he took from the Japanese soldier he had captured.

"I can't tell you how happy we are to have these items," the then-curator of the museum wrote to Bennett in a letter dated Oct. 17, 1992. "We plan to have the story Ernie wrote about you ... displayed with these items in a prominent place in our museum."

Despite that glowing recognition, Bennett's friends and family share his bitterness over his not getting the medals he believes he deserves.

"It angers me that Larry has had to wait so long to be recognized," said Bennett's girlfriend of three years and next-door neighbor, Verla Mayfield. (Both Bennett and Mayfield lost their spouses of 67 years in 2004.)

"When World War II ended, it was like the military just dropped everything it was doing and everyone went home. I think that's why you read about so many of these men getting their medals so many years later."

Gayle Danzak, Bennett's daughter, said she remembers going to school and hearing other kids talk about the medals their fathers earned during World War II and thinking that her dad had been cheated.

"He still carries a piece of the shrapnel in his head," she said. "What more proof do they need that he earned the Purple Heart?"

Bennett, who after the war was a career employee of Chrysler Corp., says he is not concerned whether he lives to see his medals.

"It's not vital that I get them in my lifetime," he said. "It's OK if only my grandchildren and great-grandchildren get to enjoy them."

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