Our ancestors play an important part in shaping who we become. Wanting to connect with them is a natural desire. For Paul Ackland and his sister Bonnie Fimon of Hutchinson, it was that desire to know the people from their past that led to their grandfather receiving a Purple Heart medal more than a century after he was wounded in World War I.
Paul was just 10 years old when his grandfather, John Ackland, died at the Minneapolis VA Hospital in 1959. He was 69 years old.
Paul grew up on the farm that had originally been his grandfather’s. But for as long as he knew his grandfather, he had been ill most of the time due to a farming accident suffered when he was younger. It wasn’t until years after his grandfather was gone that he began to learn more about his life, including his years in the U.S. Army fighting in World War I
“I never did talk to him about the service,” Paul said. “I guess at that time I wasn’t even aware that he had been in the service.”
As the years went on, Fimon grew interested in family genealogy and shared it with Paul. Through her research, Fimon recovered her grandfather’s original Army discharge certificate. In 2015, while looking at the certificate, they noticed something was missing.
“We knew he had been hospitalized, but we weren’t sure what the reason was,” Paul said. “When we found out from talking to my dad that he definitely had been wounded in France, I thought, well, he should at least have gotten a Purple Heart.”
After a bit more research, the siblings discovered their grandfather was a private in Company I, 130th Infantry of the 33rd Division. He left for France May 16, 1918, and fought at the Somme Offensive, Meuse-Argornne, Verdun, Framerville, Troyon and Amiens. On Aug. 2, 1918, he was wounded in battle and spent three weeks in the hospital recovering. He was honorably discharged May 29, 1919.
Armed with this new knowledge, Paul went to work correcting the Army’s century-old mistake. To get started, he reached out to Cassandra Carrigan at McLeod County Veteran Services, a choice he says helped immensely.
“Those people, they are so organized,” Paul said. “And they know who to contact and who to work with. It’s just amazing. For me, I went in alone and wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
Paul sent the first letter with an application for correction of military records in January 2016. But this was just the beginning. He soon learned what many in his position have learned before. While military records for everyone who served from World War II and on are stored digitally, World War I records and older are stored at the National Personnel Records Center in Missouri. In 1973, a fire at the center claimed millions of military personnel files, and what wasn’t lost has been left in disarray. Before the military would award his grandfather’s Purple Heart, it would have to check its files to make sure the claims were correct.
Thus began years of back-and-forth correspondences. It took so long, in fact, that when Paul received a message in June 2019, saying his grandfather was entitled to a Purple Heart, he had almost forgotten about it.
“At that point it had been over three years since something had finally happened,” Paul said. “It had been so long. Sometimes there would be six or nine months between correspondence. You just begin to think, well, this just isn’t going to happen.”
Even after learning his grandfather was entitled to a Purple Heart, the medal itself did not arrive until early this past September. All the work and waiting has paid off, though, and Paul is happy to finally have this connection to his grandfather to share with family members.
“I spent two-and-a-half years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era, and my son served in the National Guard, and I guess you could say, a little bit, that we are a military family,” Paul said, “and I wanted to make sure we got this accomplished before too many people were gone.”
Most importantly, Paul is glad to have received his grandfather’s medal while his own father, also named John, is still alive.
“He’s 93 years old,” Paul said. “I was getting concerned that this may not happen and he’ll be around.”
Paul is now planning a trip to see his father in Mission, Texas, and surprise him with the medal.
“I’m still very emotional about it,” Paul said. “And I’m very excited about being able to travel and see my dad. I haven’t seen him since last October.”