Purple Heart, POW, Bronze medals awarded

Heroes' celebrations for Hemphill, Ford
Jan. 22, 2013 @ 05:07 AM

Flags were flying, salutes were given and received during two emotional patriotic Purple Heart Medal ceremonies last weekend.

Friends and family crowded into the chapel of the VA Medical Center in Asheville Saturday afternoon to witness Cpl. Joseph E. Ford, 80, receive his Purple Heart and Prisoner of War medals. He served in the Korean War and was wounded two days before being captured. He was a POW for two-and-a-half years.

Sitting in a wheelchair in front of nearly 200 supporters, Ford — who suffered a stroke a few years ago — gave the thumbs-up at the end of the ceremonies.

Then on Sunday afternoon, at least 200 people gathered in Gilkey to witness Cpl. Don Hemphill, 90, of Union Mills receive his Purple Heart and a Bronze Award.

Hemphill's Purple Heart had been lost for 70 years. According to the family, after Hemphill was wounded during World War II,  he sent the medal home to his mother afraid he might lose it. The medal was lost in the mail.

Tears trickled down Hemphill's face as he thanked Bob Blum, who had the honors of pinning the Purple Heart on Hemphill's jacket. Blum found the Purple Heart Medal in 2000 in an antique shop in Columbia, S.C. and spent the next 12 years trying to find its rightful owner.

A close friend of Blum, Paul Marquis, also a Purple Heart recipient from the Vietnam War, heard about CPT Zachariah Fike, an active duty member of the Vermont National Guard, who founded “Purple Hearts Reunited” two years ago.

After Marquis contacted Fike by email he put Fike and Blum in touch and they were finally able to track down Hemphill.

Fike has returned 21 Purple Heart medals, but never to a living veteran.

"You changed my life," Fike told Hemphill. Fike said he had an opportunity to spend several hours with Hemphill on Saturday at the family farm.

Gary Swinkey, a former FBI agent and family member, said the time he spent with Hemphill as a young boy,"Gave me the ability to know about bravery, integrity. His life moved me and he gave me the ability to be me."

Hemphill's daughter, Donna Robbins and the Rev. Billy Vaughn, his pastor from Spencer Baptist, also talked abut Hemphill's heroism.

"He did what he was called to do," said Vaughn, and thanked him for his service.

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Ford's Purple Heart, POW medal ceremony

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Although it has been 60 years since Ford's capture, he had never received his Purple Heart or the POW medal.

Mike Nanney of Forest City, who volunteers with several veterans groups, including Rolling Thunder, The Ride Home and the Veterans Legacy Foundation, heard Ford's story from his wife Jane Ford of Rutherfordton last year.

Throughout the ceremony Saturday, an emotional Nanney stood behind Ford and beside another Korean War POW, Bailey Gillespie of Spindale.

Nanney and a contingent of others worked during the past year to make sure Ford received the recognition he deserved.

“For two and a half years, Joe laid down his life for his country and there’s nothing we can do to give those years back to him, but we can thank him and all of you for your service,” retired Army Col. Frank Dean, also a Purple Heart recipient, said Saturday.

Brig. Gen. Jim Ernst, of Raleigh said Saturday's ceremony is a lesson for today’s generation of military personnel who should learn from the experiences of Korean War veterans, who suffered widespread frostbite and other horrific physical challenges during their service.

“The character of those soldiers … Korean War veterans dealt with the cold for months and months and months on end,” Ernst said. “I wonder if today’s military has that kind of character and intestinal fortitude? If we could capture and harvest that . . .we could learn a lot of lessons from Korean vets.”

Emmett Harrison of Bristol, Tenn., who spent two years as a Prisoner of War with Ford (from June 1951 until their release in 1953), presented Ford the POW medal.

"I was with Joe at our lowest point," Harrison said at Oteen Saturday.

The Rev.Tim Marsh, pastor of First Baptist Church, Rutherfordton and Ford's pastor said, "This is Joe's Day . . .We stand in awe of you."

In a closing prayer, Marsh said, "We can look at our lives .. and we can leave here with the same integrity, character, grit, determinination it takes to overcome difficultiesfor the sale of so many."

Jane Ford said the medal ceremony meant a everything to her and it was long overdue.