Today we have an interesting thread that involves a WWII soldier from New Jersey, a burglary in Arizona, a stolen Purple Heart, and a girl who lives in Thaxton. Her name is Mary Anne Wilmouth and she is 66 years old.
The long-lost military medal belonged to his late father, Gerald Thomas Ryan, of Hackettstown, New Jersey, who died of a heart attack in 1972. Many years earlier, in 1943, Ryan enlisted in the United States Army in as long as 5 foot, 6 inch 17 year old high school student.
According to his military separation papers, which Wilmouth shared with me, Ryan fought as an infantry rifleman in Normandy, northern France, as well as an industrial area in central Europe known as the Rhineland.
In April 1943, the United States Army inducted him in Newark, New Jersey, and he was assigned to Company A of the 315th Regiment, part of the 79th Division. His occupation was listed as “STUDENT”.
Ryan’s military separation papers show him leaving the United States for Europe on April 14, 1944, and arriving in Europe (probably Britain) on April 23.
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Wilmouth said she doesn’t believe her father was part of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. If so, it’s likely he landed in France after D-Day.
On January 15, 1945, according to military records, Ryan was wounded in action. Wilmouth said her father was shot in the leg. He was still in the army the following May when the Germans surrendered to the Allies. He returned home to America on November 28 of the same year and was back in New Jersey on December 10, 1945.
The Army granted him an honorable discharge on December 14, 1945. And on Boxing Day 1945, that discharge was recorded by the clerk of court in Warren County, New Jersey. His separation papers noted that among the medals, badges, ribbons and pins he earned, Ryan received a Purple Heart.
Wilmouth wasn’t sure if his father should go back to high school to get a degree after he graduated, or if the high school simply granted him one because he was a war hero.
Anyway, after the war, Ryan took a civilian job at the US Army’s Picatinny Armory near Hackettstown. And in 1950, he married a girl he grew up with, Stella Shimanski. They had three children – Wilmouth is the youngest. (Stella died in 2019.)
“He tested the big guns,” Wilmouth told me. “I saw pictures.”
The couple had three children. First a boy, Thomas Ryan, then a girl — her name is now Christine Hansler. Wilmouth is the youngest.
She was 17 when her father was hospitalized with a heart attack in 1972. He died after a few weeks in hospital, Wilmouth said.
Sometime later in that decade, Wilmouth said, his brother, Thomas Ryan, moved to Arizona and took his father’s Purple Heart with him. A few years later, Wilmouth recalls, the brother informed her that her house had been broken into. And among the stolen items was the medal.
“I think it was probably, maybe in the 80s,” said Mary Anne Wilmouth. “It was so long ago.”
At that time, Wilmouth was a nurse working for the Red Cross on blood drives. This is how she met her husband, Bill Wilmouth, a civil servant from New Jersey. His father’s family is from South Boston.
The Wilmouths knew and loved Virginia for many years driving here to visit Bill Wilmouth’s family, Mary Anne Wilmouth told me. The couple therefore decided to move to Bedford County in 2011. Christine Hansler, Mary Anne’s older sister, also later moved to Thaxton.
For the rest of this story, we have to move forward to 2021, and the coronavirus, and a pandemic limerick contest sponsored by this newspaper.
The character behind it was a friend of mine, Gary Hunt. He solicited the COVID-19 limericks, organized them into a book, published it and sold copies. He raised $1,100 for Kids Soar, a faith-based literacy program for disadvantaged youth run by Trinity United Methodist Church in the Old Southwest neighborhood of Roanoke.
Wilmouth heard about the effort from a friend at his church. And she was among the limerick authors published in Hunt’s COVID collection, titled: “Laughing in the Face of the Virus: Limericks in the COVID age”.
Last year, Hunt sought to repeat that fundraising success, but on behalf of veterans. So he solicited veteran-related limericks from the same authors who had previously sent him pandemic poetry.
Wilmouth wrote three. Taken together, they more or less tell a sad story about his father’s service and the long-lost Purple Heart. The first and third verses don’t quite qualify as limericks, as they were over five lines long and the rhyme scheme was a bit off.
The second verse qualifies. Here it is:
“It’s just a little little medal and a ribbon
What our injured veterans receive
Our children need to be taught
The Purple Heart and the meaning of freedom.
After Hunt read the verses, he called me and said, “I think there’s a story here. (His father also served in the U.S. Army in Germany at the end of World War II, and Hunt was born there.) He put me in touch with Wilmouth, who told me most other details above.
Hunt also wondered: Could we help the daughter of a WWII veteran get a replacement Purple Heart for the one who disappeared in Arizona decades ago? The answer was maybe.
I contacted the district office of Wilmouth Congressman Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell. Seth Bare, one of Good’s assistants, answered the phone. I told him the story, and he seemed more than willing to help Wilmouth.
“She just needs to call us,” Bare told me on Friday. Wilmouth will need to complete and sign a standard confidentiality waiver, which congressional offices often ask voters seeking help
“We’ll definitely see what we can do, if you want her to call us,” Bare said. After Wilmouth signs the waiver, “we will assign it to a social worker,” Bare said.
By the end of the day on Friday, Wilmouth had contacted him.
I also reached out to John Long, a historian with the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, to decipher the significance of Ryan’s military medals, pins and ribbons that Wilmouth still owns. Wilmouth told me she got them from a cousin after Stella Ryan died in 2019. She sent me a picture of them.
Some don’t quite match what is known of Gerald Ryan’s military service from his separation papers, Long said. For example, Long says, there were a few patches indicating service in an armored division rather than an infantry division, the kind in which Ryan had served. Soldiers often traded them among themselves, Long added. Or it’s possible that Ryan got them while serving in the reserves after the war.
Among the pins Wilmouth still owns is a fairly famous one known as “Ruptured Duck,” Long added.
“It was supposed to be an eagle, but it quickly got the less glamorous nickname,” Long told me. “You wore this after being honorably discharged, but you were still in uniform, so an overzealous deputy didn’t arrest you for AWOL.”
There were also ribbons that signified that Ryan had been awarded a Purple Heart, which soldiers typically wore on their uniforms rather than the medal itself, Long said.
The process of getting a replacement Purple Heart will likely be much easier as Wilmouth still has his father’s separation papers showing he received one, Long added.
On Friday, Wilmouth called his brother, Thomas, in Arizona to inquire about the burglary that cost their father the Purple Heart. He doesn’t remember much, she said. But it looks like they’re about to reclaim a piece of family history — and American history, too.
It’s all because of — in a weird, random, and roundabout way — Hunt’s efforts to raise money and do good for veterans in 2022.
“Thank you very much,” Wilmouth said. “I appreciate that so many people are working on this.”
Hunt, meanwhile, is still accepting orders — and limericks — for this veteran doggerel tome. Interested? You can contact him at [email protected]
He estimates that he needs about 30 more limericks to complete this volume. The person who writes the best, Hunt added, will win a $50 prize and two tickets to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford.
The working title is “Limericks in Arms: Helping Vets Win the Final Battle — Coming Home”. For the cover of the book, Hunt included an image of a Purple Heart.
All proceeds from the book will be donated to Guitars 4 Vets, a national veterans services organization that offers music therapy lessons to returning soldiers. These can help vets with PTSD and other service-related illnesses. The Veterans Administration here in Salem offers these courses.
“It’s a 10-week course,” Hunt said. “When they’re done, they get a free guitar.”
Contact Subway Columnist Dan Casey at 981-3423 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter:.