Wilbrod E. Riopelle will receive his Bronze Star from the U.S. Army this Veteran's Day--44 years after it should have been pinned on his chest.
The wheelchair-bound World War II veteran still doesn't know how his medal happened to find its way via the U.S. mails in a broken package to his Cypress home last March. A document enclosed in the parcel was dated Dec. 14, 1977, with a congratulatory note from the U.S. Army. There was no explanation for the delay.
But Riopelle is not bitter about the mistake. "I just thank God I'm still here to get it--'cause I'm 74 , you know."
Several circumstances could explain the decades-long delay, said Kathy Canham Ross, an Army spokeswoman. The Bronze Star may have been awarded to the unit as a whole and some soldiers could not be tracked down because they moved to other units or for other reasons.
But she acknowledged that "paper work gets lost."
Riopelle--or Will, as most acquaintances call him--was severely wounded in his first mission, on Nov. 8, 1942, near the Algerian coast. Riopelle was serving in a Ranger company of the 34th Infantry Division when his unit managed to knock out the power plant of a German-held airfield that other U.S. troops were trying to overrun.
When he tried to retreat to the British destroyers that had carried his unit to the coast, Riopelle was hit on the forearm by a rifle round that remains lodged in the bone. His run toward the ships was halted when an artillery shell exploded about three yards from him.
Awoke in Hospital
Next thing he knew, Riopelle said, he was recuperating at a hospital in Glasgow, Scotland, after lying comatose for 21 days. He still doesn't know how he got to Scotland.
Riopelle said he has had eight operations since then to remove shrapnel. He lost half of his right lung and with his lower extremities virtually disabled, even walking 30 yards at a time is "pretty tough."
Today he uses a wheelchair, as he has for much of his life since his injuries in battle. However, he has been steadily employed and is now retired.
Riopelle said he received a Purple Heart from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during his stay in the Scottish hospital but did not learn of the Bronze Star--awarded for heroic or meritorious achievement--until this year.
Russ Josenhans, an American Legion member organizing the Nov. 11 award ceremony, said the organization had trouble getting the Army to present the medal, as would normally be the case for a Bronze Star, Josenhans said.
The Army first had to verify whether the medal indeed belonged to Riopelle. But to do that the Army needed to check his records. After much persistence, Assemblywoman Doris Allen's staff finally obtained them, Josenhans said.
The ceremony, complete with color guard, is scheduled for 8 p.m. at the Cypress post of the American Legion.
Riopelle--whose son, James, also received the Bronze Star while serving in Vietnam--dislikes what he called "undeclared wars," such as Korea and Vietnam. But he said he still believes, "We haven't done all for our country until we die."