Veteran trying to find next of kin for World War II veteran’s Purple Heart
Nestled inside the compartments of a dark brown, leather briefcase are two small cardboard boxes, each carrying the medals given by a grateful nation to a fallen soldier.
The briefcase, at least for now, is the medals’ home, an ignominious end to brave actions in combat more than 60 years ago.
The medals – the World War II Victory Medal, World War II Service Medal, Pacific Campaign Medal and a Purple Heart – belong to corporal James Tomas McCombs, of the U.S. Marine Corps.
He died in March 1945.
The medals, now in the possession of Craig resident Larry Neu, himself a veteran, were up for sale a year ago at an auction.
That’s when an area veteran, a friend of Neu’s, stepped in and pulled them out of the sale.
“These are not for sale, period,” said Neu, the medals’ eventual caretaker who is attempting to find McCombs’ family so he can return them. “These were awarded, they were earned. They were paid for with blood. You just can’t put a price on them.”
How the medals came into Neu’s possession is a minor odyssey in itself, and one that hasn’t yet ended with them finding their rightful destination.
It begins with McCombs’ landing with his 21st Marine Corps Regiment, Third Marine Division, on Yellow Beach at Iwo Jima on D-Day plus 2, or Feb. 21, 1945.
McCombs, originally from Montello, Nev., was killed in action March 16, 1945, or D-Day plus 25. He was 28 years old.
According to a letter from the Marine Corps dated June 20,1945, McCombs’ Purple Heart and other medals were sent to his friend, Craig resident Jack Travers.
Travers came to Craig about 1944. He was a businessman, according to his obituary, and he died in March 1955.
Travers was married to Inez Beers, a Craig woman. It appears, Neu said, that the McCombs medals stayed in her possession until she died in January 2008.
After Beers died, some of her possessions were put up for auction.
That’s where David D. Van Wagner, a Craig resident and disabled Vietnam-era veteran, came across them.
Van Wagner, who served in the Air Force’s Special Services, didn’t like seeing the medals up for grabs to the highest bidder.
“I knew that someone had spilt their blood for those, and they should not be sold,” Van Wagner said. “And had there been an objection, then I just would have paid whatever the ransom was and get them.”
There was no price listed on the medals, Van Wagner said, and he paid none when he took them from the auction.
He would have, though. He would have paid whatever asked to keep the medals from going some place they shouldn’t have.
“You damn right,” Van Wagner said.
He passed the medals onto Neu, a veteran of two tours in Vietnam and a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4265.
Neu, who has taken on the responsibility of getting other fallen veterans their due (see related story, page 9), has spent the past few months researching McCombs, attempting to locate a next of kin.
He hasn’t yet been successful.
“Ultimately, I’d like to return this to a family member, if I can find a living family member,” Neu said Friday morning. “If I can’t in a reasonable period of time, I’m going to put it all into a memorial in the VFW (Hall).”
The medals, Neu said, could have gone to anyone had they remained in the auction. They could have been lost in time, seemingly like McCombs has been for so many decades.
“That Purple Heart is so very important,” he said. “That man gave his life.”
A link that possibly could connect the medals to their rightful place with McCombs’ family rests in the file of papers and research documents in Neu’s briefcase.
According to records, McCombs was buried at Iwo Jima.
However, he was later exhumed and moved to Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, Calif.
Disposition of the burial was handled by a next of kin, although Neu’s records don’t indicate who it was.
“We just can’t seem to make a connection there,” he said.
So, the medals remain with Neu, in his briefcase until a final home can be found. At worst, they’ll end up in a display case with a story about McCombs at the VFW, he said.
That’s a more dignified place than where they could have eventually landed, Neu said, had they remained for sale at the auction.
“They could have gone anywhere, to anybody,” he said. “They could have wound up on a person’s jacket.
“I hate to see these get lost. This is important for me. : Our veterans need to be remembered and honored.”
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