WASHINGTON — In the fall of 1918, American doughboys threw themselves into the Meuse-Argonne offensive, a series of battles that helped secure an Allied victory in World War I.
In the trenches for that scorched-earth fighting was 23-year-old Pfc. Joseph Hish. Serving in a machine-gun battalion, Hish was injured in a surprise gas attack.
“He didn’t get his mask on at all, and he actually breathed that mustard gas,” said his son Joseph Hish Jr. of Hartington, Nebraska.
Years after the war’s conclusion, Congress created the Purple Heart, an award based on the Badge of Military Merit established by Gen. George Washington.
Although Hish’s service qualified him for the medal, he never received it before he died in 1963, when those seared lungs finally gave out on him.
A full century after his father was gassed on that European battlefield, the younger Hish accepted that Purple Heart on his behalf during an event Tuesday at the Reserve Officers Association in Washington, D.C.
Held on Purple Heart Day, the event was hosted by Purple Hearts Reunited, a national organization dedicated to returning lost, stolen or misplaced military medals of valor to veterans or their families.
Group founder Major Zachariah Fike talked of medals found at Broadway shows, on airport tarmacs and every other venue one could imagine.
“These medals are turning up all over our country in some of the most amazing locations — old abandoned homes, vehicles, furniture,” Fike said. “Metal detector enthusiasts are finding them buried in the ground.”
Tuesday’s event featured eight Purple Heart recipients, most of them deceased, from both world wars, Vietnam, Korea and Iraq. One medal had been found in an antique shop, another at a yard sale.
Some medals have been sent anonymously to the organization. There were tears as family members listened to accounts of their loved ones’ sacrifices.
The Iraq War veteran at the event was there to accept his Purple Heart, correcting a mistake in which he received one with the wrong name on it.
Because the elder Hish never actually received his medal, his son was accepting an entirely new one Tuesday.
An Air Force veteran himself, Joseph Hish Jr., praised the work being done by the organization.
“It will bring peace and, in some cases, closure to many, many people who’ve never had it,” Hish said.
He told The World-Herald afterward that he’s been around the globe several times and witnessed quite a bit — but Tuesday was the most profound moment he’s experienced.
“In spite of all I’ve seen and done, this is the highlight of my life,” he said.
He plans to take the medal back to his small Nebraska town to show people there before entrusting it to his own son, who shares his name and attended Tuesday’s event.
After all, Hish noted, he’ll be turning 90 later this year, and he wants to ensure that the medal doesn’t get lost.
“I’m almost a relic,” Hish said, laughing.