BY REGGIE SHEFFIELD
Early September 1950 was a bad point in the early phases of the Korean Conflict. The North Koreans had begun The Great Naktong Offensive and in defense the United Nations forces – including the U.S. Army – had formed the Pusan Perimeter.
Serving as part of the 140,000-troop, 140-mile Pusan Perimeter, on September 3, 1950, U.S. Army Private John Leo Bolles of New Milford, was hit by shrapnel near the Naktong River. It was a month before his 19th birthday. He survived his wounds and eventually came back to the United States and started a family.
For his injuries, Bolles was awarded the Purple Heart, the oldest and most solemn of U.S. military awards for those “wounded or killed in any action against an enemy of the United States or as a result of an act of any such enemy or opposing armed forces.”
Bolles passed away in 1996 at the age of 64. His Purple Heart, together with his Combat Infantryman’s Badge – the revered uniform device with its distinctive blue field and Revolutionary War era flintlock rifle awarded for those who were exposed to active ground combat – sat in storage.
On Friday, 68 years after his wounding, Bolles’ family gathered at the Midtown Park in New Milford to formally accept the return of Bolles’ Purple Heart and C.I.B.
Dave Bohman, a television reporter with the Scranton-area WNEP-TV 16, discovered Bolles’ Purple Heart in storage with many other unclaimed military decorations while researching a story on unclaimed money with the state treasurer’s office in Harrisburg.
While being shown around state treasurer Joe Torsella’s storage area by the state treasurer’s spokeswoman, Heidi Havens, she explained the office also had a number of unclaimed military awards, including Bolles’ Purple Heart and C.I.B., apparently sent to them years earlier from a safety deposit box in Scranton.
Bohman said its significance dawned on him immediately.
“If that’s the case this unclaimed funds story is really a non-story by comparison,” he told the audience, explaining his thinking at that moment.
Bohman’s search for the owner of the decorations led him to contact Rich Ely of the Susquehanna County Veteran’s office. In turn, after noticing the name Bolles and knowing a woman working upstairs in the building had a family member by the same name, he approached her.
“That was my uncle,” explained Teri Gulick, the chief county mapper in the county assessment office.
“I’m thrilled to get it back where it belongs with the family,” Ely said.
Speaking Friday, Ely brought up an issue not publicly recognized or discussed around the time of the Korean Conflict but familiar to combat veterans, family members and psychiatrists and psychologists. Then known as “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” it was only properly diagnosed with its current clinical designation after the Vietnam War: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I understand that he struggled a little bit, as do so many of our veterans do, some of the horrors that they experienced in the service of their country,” Ely said, explaining that the 18-year-old Bolles was only in Korea for one month and 26 days before being wounded.
Bolles eldest son, Michael, also an Army veteran, addressed the issue.
“What we know today as PTSD in those days was looked on as something different; that it was a weakness in you for not being able to cope with doing your duty. And still today, many service members do suffer in silence though in their head there’s screaming going on,” he said.
The elder Bolles experienced emotional and behavioral problem as a result of his intense combat experiences, problems which haunted him for years, said brother-in-law Franklyn “Buzz” Gulick.
Gulick, who called Bolles “Leo,” also served in the U.S. Army but with the 3rd Armored Division and years later after the war in Korea. Bolles married Gulick’s sister, Barbara.
“When Leo came home, like Michael said, he struggled a lot,” Gulick said. “It was a tough thing for him.”
To deal with unclaimed military decorations like Bolles’, the treasury department has launched a new website designed to help families locate military decorations in the department’s possession. Interested parties will be able to search the department’s unclaimed properties by name.
“Behind each military decoration held in Treasury’s unclaimed property vault, there is a story of sacrifice,” Torsella said in a prepared release. “It’s my hope that, with the use of technology, we are able to get more of these medals back where they belong – with the veterans and their families.”
According to Torsella’s release, his department has returned 58 service decorations and continues to search for the owners of over 500 unclaimed military awards.
The Battle of Pusan Perimeter, the battle Bolles was wounded in, was an intense, large-scale battle between United Nations and North Korean forces lasting from August 4 to September 18, 1950. It was one of the first major engagements of the Korean War, which was fought from 1950 to 1953.