Vet, 85, finally granted medals

`Righting a wrong' for GI wounded in Battle of the Bulge

October 19, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Fifty-six years after he fell wounded in the frozen nightmare known as the Battle of the Bulge, Joseph D. Zovko stood at his best attention yesterday while a general pinned the Purple Heart medal on his chest.

Zovko, 85, blinked nervously and clutched a tissue as a roomful of onlookers at the 5th Regiment Armory in Baltimore smiled in admiration. The machine-gunner also received another decoration - the Army Commendation Medal - for parachuting into Normandy and fighting with the storied 101st Airborne Division during World War II.

The ceremony was a well-laid ambush of the ex-paratrooper from Rosedale. Though he had earned both medals, bureaucratic snags and a fire at the Army's personnel center in the 1970s combined to keep them from him.

The long-delayed presentation, by Gen. James F. Fretterd, adjutant general of the Maryland Army National Guard, was a powerful moment that marked the enduring quality of a man and a time. It also underscored the strong sense of injustice carried quietly by Zovko for more than a half-century.

"I had thrown in the towel expecting to get my Purple Heart, because you know how the Army can be," said Zovko, still wiry and with a bit of an impish glint in his eyes. "I never expected this. This is really a big surprise."

The ceremony fell during the week that the highly acclaimed HBO television series Band of Brothers featured an episode about the 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment - Zovko's outfit - making its historic punch into Belgium. The series focuses on Easy Company; Zovko was in Headquarters Company. He has not seen the show since it began.

Zovko's recognition was the result of a conversation a year ago with a neighbor, Philip Marll, outside Annunciation Church in Rosedale. Marll, a veteran Baltimore County homicide detective and member of the state's Air National Guard, was moved by Zovko's story.

Marll contacted the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. He also sought assistance from Zovko's wife, members of the military and Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who got Zovko's decorations verified and mailed in three days.

"This isn't about us, it's about Mr. Joe," Marll said yesterday.

Maj. Gen. Bruce F. Tuxill, an A-10 pilot and assistant commander of the Maryland Air National Guard, called the work of getting the ex-paratrooper his overdue medals "righting a wrong."

Doris Zovko, Zovko's wife of 55 years who was in on the surprise ceremony, said, "These were very important to him. Everything he went through ... I can tell, he's happy now."

After receiving his awards, Zovko told the gathering he was humbled and happy. And he went on to extol the pride of his unit, "all the wonderful enlisted men and officers I served with.

"I served under Maxwell Taylor, a great general," Zovko recalled. "Captain Cox was my company commander. He's dead, but he was the best [commanding officer] I ever had. He went in first, always."

A native of Bethlehem, Pa., Zovko said he took his Army physical at the 5th Regiment Armory when he signed up for the Airborne Division at age 25. He recalls he was a tough kid then, the son of Yugoslavian immigrants living in Highlandtown.

"I had to fight every Tom, Dick and Harry to make it, that's why I went into the paratroopers," Zovko said.

The 1st and 2nd battalions of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment took off from England early the morning of June 5, 1944. They jumped behind Nazi lines during the Normandy invasion and secured the roads leading from Utah Beach. Later, they fought on to Cherbourg before returning to England, where they awaited their next mission.

In September, members of the 506th parachuted into Holland, fought several battles and on Dec. 16, were rushed by trucks to Bastogne and to the Battle of the Bulge. There, the regiment held the line despite a murderous artillery barrage by the Germans and assaults by other enemies - frostbite, hunger and abject horror.

"When we got there we had to dig our foxholes," Zovko said. "It snowed all the time, and soldiers were just freezing because we didn't have the right clothes. To keep warm, we jogged up and down this path whenever we could. We wore a rut through two feet of snow.

"It was just bitter," Zovko said. "The first night I had icicles hanging from my gear."

Like many who have witnessed the worst of combat, Zovko avoids talking about the massive casualties suffered at Bastogne.

He was wounded Jan. 3, 1945, when a German "airburst" shell exploded over him, sending a chunk of searing hot metal into his left shoulder. While he recuperated, his unit drove into Germany and was among the first Allied units to enter Hitler's Eagle's Nest atop Kehlstein Mountain.

Zovko returned home and got a job at the shipyard in Sparrows Point, a workplace from which he would retire 45 years later. His wife had worked as a "Rosy the Riveter" in a Dundalk defense plant.

He views America's current war against terrorists much the same way he saw the world in the 1940s.

"We can't let them get away with what they did to us, invade our country and kill thousands of innocents," Zovko said. "We didn't let Hitler get away with what he did, and we beat him. That's what we have to do now."

Is the former paratrooper ready to make another jump? Could he take the explosive jolt of a deploying parachute?

"Sure, I'd do it in a second," Zovko said. "Hitting the ground would be another thing, though."

And then Zovko winked and smiled, like somebody who knew.

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