A day longtime coming finally took place just after 1 p.m. May 12, 2007 in downtown Cassville as friends and family of Herbert Kirschbaum gathered for a surprise party. It wasn’t the 91-year-old’s birthday, but Herbert was getting a very special present more than six decades coming – he was finally getting his World War II medals.
Saluted by his fellow members of VFW Post 7080, Herbert was escorted into the dining area of Vogt’s Town Pump where he was presented a glass case filled with the medals he earned during his service in the 1940s – the National Defense Medal for defending the shores of California, the Republic of the Philippines presidential citation for defending the island nation, the Good Conduct medal, Pacific-Asiatic Campaign medal, and World War II Victory medal.
Why did it take 62 years since he was much like his peers, when Herbert came back from his service he looked to assimilate back into civilian life. The war was behind him and he wanted to move on to raising a family and building a life in southwest Wisconsin. After he came back, Herbert helped raise five children, watched eight grandchildren grow up, and seven great grandchildren. He ran a garage that worked on Allis Chalmers tractors, and spent more than two decades working at the power plant.
“Like most of the guys from that time, they were just basically tired of it and they wanted to forget about it,” Russell, his grandson said.
It was Russell who worked on and off to obtain the medals for the past five years. Growing up, and especially after he served, his grandfather would tell Russell about his time during the war. There were the stories about being bombed every day for 30 straight days, or when his group was landing at the Philippines and 30 ships were destroyed, but the LST he was on never was hit. There was Luzon, the heat and humidity of the Pacific, and the pills for malaria would turn the G.I’s skin red.
“We started asking about it, whether or not he ever got his medals,” Russell recalled wondering. Russell wanted to see the hardware his grandfather would have collected with four years of service, two in the Pacific theater. With the exception of some paperwork, a few photos and his dress uniform, Herbert did not have much from that time, including his medals.
That placed Russell on a mission. “I originally went to the VA,” Russell stated, referring to the Veterans Administration. The grandson said that became a dead end, however, as all of the service records for those who were enlisted before 1960 were lost in a warehouse fire in the 1960s in St. Louis, Mo. “We didn’t know what he was entitled to,” Russell noted.
Then, while reading the newspaper, Russell read about a vet who had just received his Purple Heart and Silver Star, and found out that Congressman Paul Ryan had set up a desk to help veterans track down the medals they deserved. “That really helped tremendously,” Russell said.
Working for the past year, and now armed with a discharge form that finally came to the surface, Russell was able to get the medals his grandfather should have gotten 62 years before. Earlier this spring, they arrived.
Wanting to make a big presentation of it, Russell had the medals framed, along with the letters that accompanied them. Looking to thank Rep. Ryan’s office, they had planned to make a big celebration later this summer, but a tough bout with an illness to his grandfather moved up the presentation. As though the gaining proximity of his medals, Herbert’s strength came back in time for the presentation.
There is a long tradition of service for the Kirschbaums. Herbert’s older brother served in World War I, and his brother John was killed in France in 1944. A couple of his son’s served, and grandchildren like Russell, who spent 17 years in, also wore the uniform. “It’s a big tradition – everyone is serving,” Russell noted.
Herbert’s story of World War II begins even before the United States entered the war, in September 1941. Drafted into the Army, Herbert traveled quite a bit those opening months, going to Illinois for intake, then off to Oklahoma for field artillery training. It was near the completion of that training when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, ushering U.S. involvement.
“I knew I was stuck then,” Herbert joked.
Herbert made his way to the coast of California where he was part of the 168 Field Artillery unit. He served on the coast for several months, not only manning the big guns, but also building platforms that scouts could use to watch the ocean.
He went back to training, where he was trained as a mechanic and was moved to the Pacific Theater. He saw Luzon and felt the heat of the Pacific as he island hopped, was part of the takeback of the Phillippines.
Now, finally, he has the hardware to show for it.