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Fallen soldier’s Purple Heart award given to nephew almost 75 years later

Purple Heart medal (Ed Passi/Flickr)

Russell Helt Jr. knew his uncle, Seaman First Class Albert Helt, was killed in action in World War II, but never knew he was awarded a Purple Heart.

Helt, of Millersburg, received his uncle’s medal, which was given to his widow, Gladys, nearly 75 years ago, during a ceremony Wednesday in the Montour County Veterans Affairs Office.

“That was way before I was born and the family didn’t talk about it,” said Helt, who choked up once during the presentation about his uncle. Helt, 70, said his dad, the late Russell “Buck” Helt, “did what he had to do in the Army during the war,” but never discussed it.

Bob Smith, commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 529 of Berwick, presented the medal to Helt along with chapter financial officer Cary Rhodomoyer. Rhodomoyer said he will submit paperwork to have Albert Helt entered into the Purple Heart Hall of Fame in New York. “We’re very happy to give it back to the family,” Smith said of the medal.

“After many years, it has found its home,” Rhodomoyer said. The medal was found in a case within a cardboard box given to Gladys Helt.

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Albert Jerimiah Helt, a Naval Reserves seaman, was killed aboard the USS Benham on April 17, 1945, near Japan. He was 28 years old and had lived in Northumberland.

Rapid response

Montour County Veterans Affairs Assistant John Novak said after The Daily Item ran the story about his office seeking relatives to present the medal to, he got phone calls and emails from more than 15 people. Many of them were researchers and genealogists.

“We came up with several people and investigated to the point where we actually found three individuals — one in Oregon — a great nephew on the mother’s side and a great nephew on Albert’s side in Anchorage, Alaska. There were several contacts about a nephew,” he said.

From there, he and Veterans Affairs Director Doug Resseguie located Russell Helt Jr., who said he was shocked. “It was absolutely right out of the blue” when Novak called him, he said.

“It’s a great honor to be here making this presentation with all these folks,” Resseguie said.

He said Novak did a wonderful job and a spent a lot of time tracking down family members.

Novak said the relatives in Millersburg, Oregon and Alaska know of each other and have exchanged contact information.

“We wanted to make sure whoever got the medal that it would be cherished and Russell said he has what he calls a shrine in his house with his dad’s mementos and mementos of several other relatives,” he said. Russell said he has medals from his late brother, Douglas, who served during the Vietnam War and plans to display town banners of family members who served in the military.

The veterans affairs office wanted to make sure the other relatives knew the medal would be in Russell’s possession in case anything happened, Novak said.

Dale Breech, of Catawissa, who found the medal in a Wayside storage unit, also found an American flag, dated 1944, made of wool with 48 stars on. It is believed to have been received by Helt’s widow.

Russell Helt Jr. plans to display the flag in his home.

Breech, who attended Wednesday’s presentation, was cleaning out the unit and saw the medal lying on the floor “in a bunch of debris.” He took the medal to the veterans affairs office in December.

Novak was also able to locate a relative in Buffalo who was unable to make the trip to Danville, but had actual conversations with several people who had been on Albert’ Helt’s ship.

A nephew, Ted Helt Jr., 87, of New York, contacted several other relatives. Novak said Albert had eight brothers and two sisters.

After Breech discovered the medal, he found the unit was listed under the name of Linda Shankweiler, Novak said. Novak believes she was a sister of Gladys Helt, who died in 1993. After payments stopped for the storage unit, she couldn’t be located, Breech said.

“I wish to thank all the people who emailed and called offering to do geneaology research. We are so grateful for the many wonderful people out there who were willing to do it,” Resseguie said.

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© 2020 The Daily Item