One more detail on Veterans Day

Recognition: Joseph Farinholt will spend today as he has for years, telling World War II battle stories, but his audience has grown.

November 11, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

According to Army regulations, a Silver Star -- one of the military's highest honors -- is awarded to a "person who is cited for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States."

But World War II veteran Joseph Farinholt, a wiry 77-year-old with little patience for military-speak, translates the requirements this way: "Be as crazy as hell."

Farinholt should know. He was awarded the Silver Star four times during World War II -- the only soldier to do so, local veterans groups believe. Once for knocking out a German tank single-handedly. A second for going behind enemy lines to capture equipment. A third for rescuing four wounded soldiers pinned under heavy fire. And a fourth for diverting a German attack -- a feat that left him severely wounded with more than 20 machine gun rounds in his body. The last two bullets were removed in 1986.

Today is Veterans Day, and Farinholt will spend it sitting behind a fold-up table at the old armory building in Westminster, passing out buttons and pamphlets on veterans issues -- as he has every year for as long as he can remember. He'll also share his stories of battle.

Lately, his audience has been growing. The Finksburg resident has emerged from relative obscurity into one of the more celebrated World War II veterans in Maryland.

In December, he was made a distinguished member of the 175th Infantry Regiment of Baltimore. On Memorial Day, the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration presented him with a special license plate with four silver stars. And on the 55th anniversary of D-Day, Farinholt threw the first pitch at an Orioles game, before 47,000 people.

"I was in shock," he said of the reception.

In the past few months, he has received more than a dozen other requests to speak at local veterans groups and schools.

The attention has come as a surprise for Farinholt, who had found that most people -- even his family -- didn't care much about his story.

"My wife and kids got so sick of hearing it, I eventually shut up," he said.

"He's gotten his second wind. He's enjoyed being recognized after so many years of being quiet," said George Linthicum, the past commander of Limestone Post, 175th Infantry, in Baltimore, and a longtime friend of Farinholt's.

Remembering the war

Like Farinholt, many veterans of World War II are spending their later years remembering the exploits of their youth, said Donald McKee, a World War II veteran in Silver Spring who publishes "The Twenty-Niner," a newsletter of the 29th Division Association veterans group.

After the war, there was little time or desire to talk about what had happened, McKee said.

"I came back, raised a family. The idea of making a living was most important. Very few people talked about World War II in the '50s, '60s and '70s," he said.

That changed in 1994 on the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, when veterans began remembering, McKee said.

As more veterans started comparing notes and honors from the war, Farinholt's name began to crop up. One veteran boasted that he had earned one Silver Star and some other veterans were quick to put the achievement in perspective, Farinholt said.

" `That's nothing,' they said. `We know a guy who has four Silver Stars,' " recalled Farinholt.

"It was sort of stunning. Nobody ever did that before, so he started getting recognition. It's long over due," Linthicum said. A sergeant in the Anti-Tank Platoon, 3d Battalion, 175th Infantry, Farinholt earned the nickname "Lightning" for his ability to move swiftly and destroy Panzer tanks.

Army officials said they do not keep records documenting who earned the most medals in World War II.

But earning four Silver Stars in one war would be rare, they said. The 29th Division Association and the 175th Infantry Regiment have honored his achievement as unprecedented.

"He is the only person I've heard of winning four," said Joseph Balkoski, a military historian from Baltimore who wrote a history of the 29th Infantry Division in Normandy.

`A comedy of sorts'

Farinholt attributes his exploits more to accident than bravery.

"Most incidents can be made into a comedy of sorts," he said.

A reckless youth, Farinholt grew up in Catonsville and was one of 11 children. He would often disappear for days fishing and sleeping by a river. He learned to drive at age 13.

In 1938, one day before his 16th birthday, Farinholt joined the Army, telling a recruiter he was 23. ("My uncle told me, `If you are going to tell a lie, tell a big one,' " Farinholt said.) Drawn to military service more for pay than glory, Farinholt underwent a change the first time he saw a dead soldier on D-Day.

"I got there and I got serious," he said.

His days after the war were marked with the same risk-taking that made him an accomplished soldier. While recovering in the hospital, Farinholt bet a friend $10 that he would marry his sister's friend, Agnes Marshall. Within three weeks, Farinholt collected his money.

`A real solidier'

Farinholt owned a grocery store, a jewelry shop and an automobile dealership. He built Clearview Airport in Carroll County and managed a semipro football team in Westminster. He was restless about everything, he said, except his accomplishments on the battlefield many years ago.

"He is a real soldier," his lieutenant wrote to Farinholt's mother in 1944, after he learned her son had been severely wounded. "The best I ever met."

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