Tuesday, June 9, 2009

George Wahlen Passes Away, Iwo Jima Corpsman, Utah's Last Surviving WWII Medal of Honor Winner

I never met Mr. Wahlen, but I do have a signed copy of his book, which I consider recommended reading for any WWII historian.
Read about the book here: http://www.americanlegacymedia.com/TQH/TQHIntro_black.html

Reluctant WW II hero was a champion of veterans causes
By Matthew D. LaPlante
The Salt Lake Tribune

Updated: 06/06/2009 03:57:35 PM MDT

(Paul Fraugton / Tribune file photo)

Every now and again, when her husband was feeling strong enough, Melba Wahlen and her children would take him for a drive.
He could have gone anywhere in the Weber Valley, but George Wahlen always wanted to go to the same place.
"Let's go watch the construction of the nursing home," he would say. "Let's see how they're coming along."
Utah's last surviving Medal of Honor winner, a zealous advocate for veterans' rights who helped lobby for cemeteries, hospitals -- and, most recently, a veterans nursing home in Ogden -- died Friday morning after a long battle with cancer. Doctors said Wahlen passed comfortably at the Salt Lake City Veterans Affairs Medical Center which, much to Whalen's humble chagrin, was named in his honor in 2004.
He'd never liked the spotlight, but in his waning years, he understood his place in it.

A hero is born
It all began on Feb. 19, 1945. U.S. military leaders, prepping for an invasion of Japan, had set their sights on a little-known island 600 miles south of Tokyo, known as Iwo Jima.
Wahlen, a 20-year-old Navy corpsman who had never seen combat, rushed with his platoon from a beach-landing craft -- right into machine gun and artillery fire.
Seemingly unconcerned for his own well-being, according to those he treated, Wahlen set immediately to work tending to the wounded. But the Ogden native quickly learned he could not save everyone.
"We turned over one Marine and he had been shot between the eyes and was bleeding all over," Wahlen told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2004. "That was quite a shock."

Wahlen would spend the next two weeks trying to keep his comrades alive, often dashing through machine gun fire to reach the wounded.

Trying to reach several injured Marines about a week into the fighting, he came upon a Japanese grenade bunker that was holding U.S. forces at bay. He called to a Marine to throw him a grenade, then crawled to the bunker to kill those inside. Wahlen, hit by grenade fragments, bandaged his own right eye and helped a badly wounded Marine off the deadly hill.
Several days later, Wahlen was trying to pull a wounded Marine from the lines when a shell landed nearby, hitting him in the shoulder and the back. Wounded once again, he could have been evacuated. He chose to stay.

"When you've been with these guys, they're like family," he said. "You don't want to let them down."

The next day Wahlen was headed to an artillery crater to attend to five wounded Marines when a shell landed in their position. A piece of shrapnel struck Wahlen near his right ankle, breaking his leg. "I bandaged myself up, took a shot of morphine and crawled over and started helping a Marine that had both his legs blown off," he recalled.

After putting tourniquets on the Marine, Wahlen was too badly injured to continue. The medic was put on a stretcher and evacuated.

Seven months later he received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman while recovering in a Marine hospital in Camp Pendleton, Calif.

In and out of the spotlight

Friends and family said Wahlen never wanted his life to be defined by the blue-and-white-ribboned medal he'd received "for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life."
In fact, Melba Wahlen said she didn't know that her husband had won the U.S. military's highest honor for heroism until a peculiar letter arrived, several years after they were married.
"It was an invitation for an event with the president at The White House," she laughed. "I had no idea what it was for."

As word of Wahlen's heroism drew attention in Utah after the war, his wife recalled, the quiet man longed for anonymity.

He found it back in uniform, enlisting in the Army and serving in Korea and Vietnam before finally retiring to take a job assisting veterans at Weber State University.

In the post-Vietnam era, when many Americans wanted to forget about their nation's wars, Wahlen found some of the obscurity he'd been seeking. But he also found a lack of attention to the needs of those who had answered their country's call.

As veterans groups sought state funding to improve the Utah Veterans Memorial Cemetery at Camp Williams, they leaned on Whalen's fame.

Melba Wahlen said her husband reluctantly obliged -- and "found that he was very good at it. He would do anything for veterans."

When the cause was right, Department of Veterans affairs Director Terry Schow said, Wahlen would make an appearance, give a short speech or go shake a few hands on Capitol Hill -- all in the name of loosening purse strings for fellow veterans.

But Wahlen never did grow used to the spotlight. In brief remarks at a 2004 ceremony in which the Salt Lake City hospital was named for him, Wahlen said nothing about his fateful fortnight on Iwo Jima.

"I just represent the veterans, that's what this is all about," he said.

"The way George always rationalized in his mind, he was a symbol for all of the other veterans," said Gary Toyn, who wrote about Wahlen's war experiences in the biography Quiet Hero . "He got all the attention, and he never liked that, but he understood that he had a role to play. At one point he realized, 'You know, I can really do some good with this.' And that's how he continued to serve."

A legacy continues
Just hours after his father's death, Brock Wahlen stood before television cameras in a hastily arranged press conference in the medical center lobby. Patients passed by, some shuffling with walkers and others gliding through in wheelchairs, en route to medical appointments.
Brock Wahlen made a vow: "He always fought for the veterans and their rights. We're going to continue that legacy as a family."

Schow had asked George Wahlen to speak at the November opening of the Veterans Nursing Home in Ogden. And Wahlen was looking forward to doing so.

But when Schow visited, last week, it was clear that his friend would not make it.

"But his thoughts were still on what he could do to help," said Schow. "We gave him a progress report and he asked about sponsoring a room there."

Schow choked back tears at the loss of a man he called his hero. "He won't be there to speak at the dedication," he said. "But he will be there. By God, he'll be there."

"Our state has lost our humble hero."
Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr.
"His service to this country and Utah will not soon be forgotten."
Sen. Orrin Hatch
"His real contribution came from a lifetime of dedication to those in the military and his fellow veterans."
Sen. Bob Bennett
"Though he could have easily acted like the celebrity he was, George never thought of himself as anything more than a humble friend to those he met."
Rep. Rob Bishop
"He said, 'So many other people have done so much.' But we all know the truth."
Department of Veterans Affairs Director Terry Schow
"He was a hero in his own right, but he viewed all veterans as heroes."
VA Hospital Chief of Staff Ronald Gebhart
"Our hearts are broken... he was part of our famliy."
VA Spokeswoman Jill Atwood

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