A stolen family treasure, missing for more than 60 years, found its way back home on Wednesday, ending a remarkable journey that included a stroke of luck, some dogged detective work and an unflinching belief that a soldier killed in the line of duty deserved to be honored, no matter how long it took.
William Johnson brushed away tears as he accepted the Purple Heart of his brother, George, who was killed in Korea as a 17-year-old soldier nearly 64 years ago.
“It was a complete surprise that it showed up again,” said William Johnson, holding the medal in his lap. “It’s amazing to come back, it’s brought back home again.” Belated Purple Heart stories usually involve some sort of lost paperwork or a bureaucratic snafu. But the story of George Johnson’s missing Purple Heart takes a different turn.
Johnson was killed in a battle with North Korean forces on July 28, 1950, one of 53 American soldiers who died during what is now known as the Battle of Hwanggan.
His body was brought home and buried in Fulda, Minn., and his parents were presented with his Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart. George’s father, Emil, kept the medals at a store he owned in Cambridge. The store was burglarized and the medals were stolen and never recovered. Emil died in 1977.
Last year, a couple were cleaning out a building on a 27-acre piece of property they recently purchased in Otsego, Minn. Its previous owner had been an inveterate collector, attending auctions and estate sales and filling sheds and buildings on the property with what he found.
In one box of junk in an abandoned building that was about to be torn down was a palm-sized leather case with gold embossing. Inside was a Purple Heart, slightly tarnished and its ribbon dirty from neglect. On the back of the medal was the name George J. Johnson.
The couple contacted a cousin, Al Zdon, who works with the American Legion. An old newspaperman, Zdon did what old newspapermen do.
“They knew this had to be something special to somebody and that started the process,” he said. “A little research here and a little research there and it was like a detective story. One little thing led to another little thing and eventually you get the whole story.”
Zdon contacted the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs and Senior Director Brad Lindsay, who was able to determine that George Johnson died in Korea and that he was buried at the Prairie Hill Cemetery in Fulda.
Lindsay called the lone funeral home in town, which had changed hands in 1962. The Totzke Funeral Home had no records from the previous owner, but employee Marquis Madison looked through their own records and was able to determine that the funeral home handled the services for Emil Johnson. Madison was able to find the names of surviving children and passed the information on to Lindsay at the Minnesota VA.
“In smaller towns, you tend to know who people are,” Madison said. “Family ties don’t stray very far and you can get a connection to who belongs to who. This medal gets connected back to who it’s supposed to be with.”
The medal turned up about 35 miles from where it was stolen. It was returned to the Johnson family during a modest ceremony in the federal building at Fort Snelling. William Johnson, who is now 75 and living in Avoca, Minn., north of Worthington, made the trip to accept the medal. Beforehand, Lindsay removed the mold from the box and cleaned the purple ribbon with fabric cleaner.
“I get choked up talking about it,” he said. “All you have left when your 17-year-old son dies are those two medals.”
William Johnson said his father was devastated when the medals were stolen.
“This really got to him. He couldn’t figure out why someone would take a medal,” he said.
William was adopted and actually never knew his brother.
“I just guess that it makes new memories for me,” he said.
He’ll keep the medal in his home. In a safe place.