Elmer Blair was awarded the U.S. Army’s Bronze Star Medal in February.
He deserves another medal for patience.
Blair is a 102-year-old World War II veteran who went 77 years before receiving the Bronze Star for his “meritorious” combat service against the Germans as an infantry lieutenant in Italy in 1944.
That means Blair, a resident of Cypress Cove at HealthPark retirement community in Fort Myers, had one of the longest waits in American history between the time he engaged in combat and the day he received his Bronze Star.
Bronze Star medals were initiated in World War II, created for combat veterans as well as for civilians and others who were in combat environments to honor “their sacrifice, bravery and honor while serving their country” against an American enemy.
“I was surprised,” Blair said about learning by mail in February that the secretary of the Army had finally bestowed the Bronze Star upon him. “I was glad to get it.”
The almost eight-decade delay between the day Blair was injured trying to scurry over a wall and avoiding German tank fire in Italy and the moment he learned he got the Bronze Star cannot be attributed to any one factor. Rather, it was a combination of missing files, being injured and removed from his unit, lack of awareness, bureaucracy and just plain happenstance.
“Sometimes it may take an extended period for an award recommendation and subsequent medal award based on any number of factors like gathering or verifying information,” said Sgt. Anthony Hewitt, an Army public affairs specialist.
While he said Blair’s wait was not the longest ever — one veteran had to wait 80 years — “we are grateful for his heroism and service to our country.”
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Some wish the wait had not been quite so long.
“He should have gotten it at the end of the war,” said Blair’s daughter, Debby Donahue, who lives in Sanibel and became the catalyst for her father to receive the Bronze Star.
“But because of his injury and coming back to the U.S., he never followed up and realized he should have gotten it.”
Blair, who was working in the coal mines of West Virginia when he joined the National Guard as a teenager and was called to active duty in the war, didn’t learn he was eligible for the Bronze Star until a few years ago.
Then, another resident at Cypress Cove told him he had a Bronze Star, and it dawned on Blair that he might be eligible, too. He enlisted his daughter’s help, but they were stymied when the Department of Defense couldn’t find all the relevant records.
So the persistent Donahue then turned to the Department of Army. The Army, she explained, “said he should have gotten it, mainly because he was in combat.”
But the wheels of government rarely turn swiftly, so it would be another couple of years before the Bronze Star was granted.
By that point, Blair didn’t really expect anything to happen. “I wasn’t excited about getting it, it was so long ago,” he explained.
His knee injury, which persists to this day, forced him from the infantry, into the Transportation Corps. He graduated from officer candidate school while in the Army and retired as a major after 26 years and with eight other medals for his military service. He then went to college, graduated, and returned to the Army as a civilian, working as a recreation and athletic director for the military, with assignments in Japan and Germany, as well as in the United States.
His wife of 60 years died in 2002 and Blair moved permanently to Southwest Florida in 2004. Yet through all the years, his persona as an infantry man fighting the war in Italy remained with him, according to his daughter.
Blair vividly remembers that fateful night 77 years ago in the mountains of Italy when he tried to lead a couple of squad leaders and a sergeant into an area they thought the Germans had vacated.
“We were told by our intelligence people that the Germans were gone,” he related. “We thought we were free. But we didn’t know they were in camouflage. I think they set us up in a trap.”
The Germans shot at Blair and his men from a tank, Blair fell from the rock wall he tried to climb to escape fire and lay injured on the ground, his knees so damaged he couldn’t walk.
“I was in misery,” he recalled. “I couldn’t do anything.”
He was evacuated by medics. He never learned what happened to the four others who were with him — whether they survived or whether they were killed, adding: “I never heard of them again.”
Yet years later, after reading a book on the Italian campaign, Blair discovered that his injury and removal from the field of battle may have been fortuitous. “A month later,” he said, “my entire regiment was wiped out.”
Blair has remained an active resident at Cypress Grove despite his age and his gimpy knees, happy to share his war stories with others. And he’s equally proud of his newest possession — a shiny Bronze Star, that still sits in the box it came in.
Until Blair appealed to the Army for his Bronze Star, his daughter knew little about her father’s military service.
“He really never talked much to us about his war experience,” she said. “I just knew he was injured.”