A Grand Rapids veteran who served with his brother in World War Two is being reunited with his late brother’s Purple Heart medal. It’s all part of an organization whose mission is to track down misplaced medals and give them back to their rightful owners.
Bill Gillesse of Grand Rapids and his brother Mark both fought in the Philippines during World War II. Bill escaped from the war unscathed, but his brother Mark, who died in 2003, was shot during a firefight with Japanese soldiers.
“He was in the Philippines, he was a first scout so he was a squad leader," Gillesse said. "So he was a master sergeant. So they were pinned down and he stuck his head up and he got shot in the shoulder.”
Mark received the military’s oldest medal in honor of his bravery; the Purple Heart; given to all veterans who are either wounded or killed while serving in the military.
Over the years the Purple Heart went missing, until one day Bill says, it showed up at a garage sale.
“Because they had bought that in a garage sale as I understand it, and because those medals have their names engraved on them, it got back to Major Fike," Gillesse said.
Major Fike is the founder of Purple Hearts Reunited, an organization based in Vermont who is dedicated to reuniting military veterans and their families with misplaced, lost or stolen medals. Since its conception in 2012, Purple Hearts Reunited has returned roughly 450 medals to their rightful owners.
“When you lose a hero in combat, you know often they’re forgotten but those families remember for them forever," Fike said. And for them to bring that memory back and tell their story and what heroes they were is very important. It’s because of those great Americans we are a free nation, and we cannot forget about them.”
Bill says after receiving his brother’s Purple Heart Tuesday evening, his brother’s memory will live on and the medal will remain in his family hopefully for generations to come.
“My Mother and Dad came from the Netherlands with four boys in 1923. I will pass it on to my kids.”