Thomas J. McGowan has five Purple Hearts, five Bronze Stars and the French Croix de Guerre attesting to his bravery on the battlefield during World War II.
But now he has finally achieved the kind of recognition that most Californians can appreciate: a personalized Purple Heart license plate, 0026PH.
McGowan, 69, is the first Los Angeles-area resident to be given the plates issued under a new state law recognizing those who were wounded in combat.
"These plates will honor you on the sacrifices you made. . . . You shed your blood for this country," said Jo Ann Skiles, manager of the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Culver City, who presented the plates to McGowan at a small ceremony in Culver City's VFW Post 1476 on Tuesday.
"This is a very nice thing to have, and I dedicate it to all my fellow comrades," said McGowan, holding the plates in front of a chest full of battle medals. "I feel I'm very fortunate to be alive."
As an Army sergeant with the 90th Infantry Division, McGowan was awarded numerous citations for bravery, especially during the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg, so-called for the bulge the advancing German troops made in the American lines.
He was taken prisoner twice by German soldiers, and both times managed to escape. During one escape, he used a pistol he took from a dead SS officer and helped a wounded American soldier cross a mine field back to the American lines.
As they neared safety, he said, American troops mistook them for enemy soldiers and began firing at them. "I kept shouting 'Brooklyn Dodgers, New York City, Coney Island and New York Giants,' " McGowan recalled. "Finally the shooting stopped and we were back with our troops."
McGowan was also credited with escorting about 1,500 surrendering German soldiers to safety, he said. He once shot down a German Messerschmitt airplane with a 50-caliber machine gun and was credited with destroying several tanks and pillboxes.
Wounded Several Times
McGowan was wounded several times by shrapnel. He received a fractured skull, a broken jaw and gunshot wounds to his leg and hand. He spent nearly two years in a hospital in England recovering from his wounds.
Winston M. Roche, former national commander of the Veterans of World War I of the USA Inc., who spoke at Tuesday's ceremony, said McGowan's bravery saved hundreds of lives. "Had he not stalled the Germans' advance, they would have broken through and it would have taken thousands of our men to stop them," Roche said.
The new license plates are available to any veteran who has been awarded the Purple Heart, for an annual fee of $51. Recipients who qualify for free plates as disabled veterans can get the new plates at no charge.
The plates have a four-digit number, followed by the letters PH. They also have a picture of the Purple Heart medal, and a slogan underneath the numbers that says "Combat Wounded."
The plates were issued this month along with a similar plates honoring survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
McGowan, a retired Los Angeles City worker who lives in West Los Angeles, said he plans to put his plates on his wife's 1989 Buick Skylark.