The box arrived on Harold Tor's doorstep in February, nearly 66 years after he left the United States Army with a war won, an arm missing and his 18th birthday still ahead of him.
Tor, an 11-year member of American Legion Huntington Beach Post 133, removed the package's contents and arranged them carefully in a frame over black velvet. He identified each with small printed labels: the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the medals commemorating his marksmanship and the liberation of the Philippines.
The nearly two dozen medals, badges and insignias now hang in Tor's study. When he sees them, he remembers the adventures he had in the Pacific during World War II — and the man who helped him get his official recognition decades later.
Mickey Pitre, the post's service officer, died of a stroke June 12 at the age of 83. Two years before his death, he connected Tor with the National Personnel Records Center, which arranged the delivery of the medals.
According to Tor, it took a year and a half to complete the process. But it was all worth it when the package arrived.
"It was quite a thing to receive," Tor said.
A box of history
When Pitre, pronounced "pee-tree", learned that Tor, who enlisted at 16 and served in the Pacific until after the war ended, had never received most of his medals and ribbons, he gave him the person to contact at the records center in St. Louis.
Randolph Geary, an archives technician for the records center, said he handles about 16 requests a day for records of World War II and Korean War veterans, and one or two requests for medals. If the center receives the latter, it consults records about which medals the veteran earned, then gives the Army or other branch the go-ahead to ship the medals.
As World War II veterans become fewer, many posthumous requests come from next of kin.
"There's a lot of family members asking for medals," Geary said.
After World War II, the shortage of copper and brass due to the war effort meant that many veterans who earned combat honors never got them in physical form, Tor said.
The 84-year-old had accumulated his own collection over the years, ordering equivalents of many of the medals he'd earned from a catalog. It wasn't until Pitre encouraged him, though, that he sought an official delivery from the Army.
When Tor opened the box, each medal brought back its own memory. The Purple Heart indicated two wounds, one from shrapnel that lodged in different parts of his body, the second from the Japanese ambush in 1945 that blew off his left forearm.
He earned the Bronze Star, he said, for warning a general away from enemy gunfire.
On the back of the frame, Tor keeps his honorable discharge form, which lists the medals he earned during the war. And he's busy documenting his experiences another way: "Private Tor," a memoir of his war experiences, is in its fifth revision, and Tor plans to publish it through his own book press.
Tina Derrickson, an inventory management specialist for the Army, said stories like Tor's are common. After World War II, she said, many veterans didn't bother pursuing their medals.
"A lot of them, they just wanted get home to their families," she said. "They didn't even think about getting their awards."
Derrickson's office receives medal requests from veterans of many wars and usually handles them in the order they come in. If a veteran or family member informs her that the honors were earned in World War II, though, she pushes them up in line.
"The living World War II vets, we will try to get them out the door faster because there are so few left," Derrickson said.
Serving the legion
Pitre, who lived in Huntington Beach, often played the role of liaison for his fellow legionnaires. According to Dennis Bauer, the post's adjutant, he dealt with the Department of Veterans Affairs, facilitated medical care and helped with assorted paperwork.
Tor knew him in another capacity: the Veterans in the Classroom program, in which legionnaires visit local schools to talk about their experiences. Pitre, an aerial photographer in Korea and the Pacific, accompanied Tor on many visits and brought his old equipment.
"Mickey was a really great guy," Tor said. "In the war, he was a cameraman on these bombers, and he would take pictures of the ground with these big 80-millimeter cameras."
Bauer said the post hasn't yet appointed a replacement for Pitre, who held the service officer job for more than half a decade. Pitre's skill in dealing with bureaucracy earned him a reputation even outsideHuntington Beach, Bauer said.
"He told me occasionally he would get calls from people in Northern California because they were referred to him," he said.
On June 16, Bauer and his wife hosted a memorial service for Pitre at their home. Among those paying tribute was Tor, who knew the service officer for more than 10 years.
Before Pitre's death, Tor was able to tell him his medals had arrived.
"He was really happy," he said. "He said he felt he did something. He was really overjoyed at that."