In one palm-sized box, Nikki Neis got back a link to her late father and a big piece of his legacy as a Filipino-born survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman on Wednesday returned to Neis the box with three of her father’s medals, including his Bronze Star with two oak leaves. Five years after Roger Neis died at age 87, the medals were stolen in 2012 from his northeast Minneapolis house.
Nikki Neis called them “the tokens my dad received for his valor.” The burglar “didn’t just take medals, he took a legacy that was left to share with … children and grandchildren,” Neis said.
Christopher Lee Burgess of Minneapolis was convicted in the burglary and sentenced to one year in the Hennepin County workhouse. He was released in June. In August, Assistant County Attorney Josh Larson, the prosecutor in the case, received a visit from Burgess’ lawyer, who dropped off the medals, saying “with a wink” that a “little birdie” had given them to him, Larson said.
The medals weren’t the only things taken from the home of Nikki Neis’ parents. The old Victorian was ransacked, family heirlooms and jewelry were stolen. Her outgoing mother became introverted and distrustful. Of all the possessions, the medals left the biggest hole, and that was what Nikki Neis said in her victim-impact statement at the sentencing for Burgess more than a year ago. She said the medals “would hold no value” to anyone but her mother, her four brothers and the grandchildren.
Her father’s words
At that time, Neis also read from a letter her father wrote about his experience on the World War II march that began in April 1942 after the Battle of Bataan in the Philippines. An Army scout, Roger Neis was among the estimated 60,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war forcibly marched 80 miles by the Imperial Japanese Army. Thousands died before they reached their destination, Camp O’Donnell.
Neis wrote that as the march began, he was hobbled from a wound on a leg and delirious from malaria. “We walked for miles and miles and saw some of my fellow marchers shot or bayoneted on the spot for stopping and (scooping) stagnant water to quench their thirst,” he wrote.
The beatings continued “for little or no reason at all,” and “food and water was very limited and unfit for human consumption.” Everyone suffered from malnutrition and, to stay alive, ate tree bark, leaves and grass, he wrote.
Her father’s legs were so badly scarred from the war and the march that he never wore shorts, Nikki Neis said.
‘Everything to me’
A native of the Philippines and the son of a prominent judge, Roger Neis had joined the U.S. Army as a path to move to the United States and forge his own trail. He and his wife had five children, Nikki the only daughter. As an adult, she built a house across the street from her parents in northeast Minneapolis. She has two children. Her 3-year-old son carries his grandfather’s name.
“My dad meant everything to me,” she said. The medals provide not just a link to him, but a tangible means of teaching her children what people went through to serve this country and protect our rights, Neis said. Another medal was for good conduct, featuring an eagle encircled with the words “efficiency, honor, fidelity.”
Larson said the return of stolen heirlooms is rare even though restitution is often prescribed as part of a criminal sentence. “Most things that people steal, they’re either fenced, broken or used,” Larson said.
Nikki Neis called the return of the treasures a “miracle.” Her mother is a private person and wasn’t at the news conference, but Neis described her as a “woman of faith” who always told her to “keep the faith. Keep praying because miracles really do happen.”