Medals shine brighter after veteran's long wait

Honor: A Carroll County man is awarded the medals he earned as a Navy gunner in World War II.

August 04, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Nearly 60 years after his discharge from the Navy, Robert Fitz has been awarded the medals he earned as a gunner on a torpedo bomber during World War II.

During an awards ceremony yesterday in Westminster, the 78-year-old former aviation ordnance man received three medals representing his years of service in the Atlantic and Pacific, two service pins and a ribbon with two stars.

"I want to leave these things for my family," said Fitz, a Manchester resident who has two daughters, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. "They are a sign of my service to my country. I am putting them in a shadowbox frame. Someday down the road, one of the boys in my family might want them."

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett also presented Fitz, who flew several combat missions while serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, with an American flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol.

Fitz, who drives a bus part time for Carroll Area Transit System, had a mishap Monday with a wheelchair lift that left him with two black eyes and a broken nose. But it did not keep him from the ceremony.

"My wife said that I look like I have just gotten back from the war," he said.

Fitz began his quest for the medals about a year ago.

Fitz was discharged from the Navy in October 1946, with all the military service ribbons to which he was entitled. He was unaware, he said, that medals could be attached to those ribbons and could be purchased at the ship's store. In 1945, he had received the Navy Air Medal for meritorious service.

A conversation with another veteran about a year ago made him realize he should pursue the other medals. In response to a letter about a year ago from Fitz, the Navy confirmed his war record and his eligibility for the medals, but didn't forward them. So he contacted Bartlett, who represents Western Maryland.

Bartlett and Robert L. Finn, assistant secretary for outreach and advocacy with the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, put the medals in Fitz's hands yesterday.

"It is both an honor an privilege to be involved," Finn said. "This is the guy Tom Brokaw talks about in The Greatest Generation."

Fitz said the book "was like reading my life."

"For me, it was a privilege to be in the service and to be part of protecting my country," he said, adding he joined the Navy at 17, right out of high school in Waynesboro, Pa.

Now that he is semiretired, Fitz takes time to travel and to reminisce.

"You grow up in a big hurry when you are fighting a war," he said. "The hardest thing about being out there was going to bed at night not knowing if you were going to make it through the next day."

He recalled missions over several Pacific islands in the small planes that carried a pilot, a radioman and a gunner.

"It was tight quarters, and I sure wouldn't fit in there now," he said. "We strafed whatever was down there. Pulling the trigger kept me from thinking about them firing at me."

He and his wife, Carol Fitz, visited the Hornet, now a museum in Alameda, Calif., about three years ago. This month, the couple will see the National World War II Memorial in Washington.

"These medals really mean a lot to him," said Carol Fitz. "He can remember a lot of this like it was yesterday."

As he left the ceremony, another World War II veteran approached and shook his hand firmly.

"Congratulations and thank you," said George H. Miller of Westminster, who served in the Army, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and has several medals of his own. "These medals are important, and you deserved them a long time ago."

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