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Two decades after Washington solider’s death, elusive Bronze Star citation is united with family

Bronze Star with valor (US Air Force/Released)

After dodging bullets and helping save the world, Melvin Kuehn waited four decades to receive a Bronze Star.

In honor of his bravery during World War II, he finally received the commendation. But after he died, the medal vanished. Then, almost two more decades slipped away.

Meantime, a stranger (and fellow veteran) made a surprising discovery at an auction, prompting a dogged, years-long quest to solve a mystery regarding this extraordinarily elusive Bronze Star:

What happened to Melvin Kuehn?

As a teen, Melvin Kuehn went to war, shipped overseas with the Army’s 75th Infantry Division. The South Dakota native saw heavy combat on multiple key fronts during World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge.

In 1946, he was discharged with two battle stars, plus the Combat Infantryman Badge. Shortly afterward, he was cited with the Army Occupation Medal. Years later to the Journal Star, he would half-jokingly say that his decorations recognized his surviving “crawling on your belly and getting your head shot at.”

After the Army, he attended Purdue University and UCLA before becoming a sales executive for General Mills and other companies. After raising three sons, he eventually settled in Sunnyland. Meantime, he put his military training to public use, serving as a lieutenant with the Peoria County Sheriff’s Office auxiliary unit.

Yet over the years, he rarely mentioned his Army days.

“He didn’t talk about the war,” says son Mike Kuehn, 51, of Washington.

Still, his dad’s thoughts occasionally turned to the Bronze Star. Veterans’ advocates would say that he likely was eligible for the medal, which cites combat bravery. But as decades passed, red tape seemed to forever keep the Bronze Star out of reach.

But in 1982, 36 years after discharge from the Army, Melvin Kuehn was awarded the Bronze Star. The citation noted his “exemplary conduct in ground combat against the armed enemy during World War II in the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater of Operations.”

Though proud of the award, he humbly tucked it away with his other citations. In time, though he still owned his Sunnyland home, he moved to Morton Villa Care Center in Morton, where he died at age 76 in 2002. He was buried at Glendale Cemetery in Washington, with military rites accorded.

Afterward, Michael Kuehn eventually began sorting through his father’s house. He realized that items seemed to be missing, so much so that he filed a police report. However, detectives could not help much, considering the heavy foot traffic through the home and a lack of clues regarding the belongings’ disappearance.

Among the vanished items: his father’s military awards. Michael Keuhn has no idea why someone might’ve taken them. Perhaps they had been stored in box and accidentally donated or discarded.

He says, “I had no idea what happened.”

But in time, Paul Smith did.

In 2010, Smith went to an estate auction in Washington. As often his hobby, he spotted a box holding something of minor interest — “I forget what it was,” he says — and bid a few dollars. After his bid won, he looked more closely inside the box and noticed newspaper pages near the bottom. He pulled them out, just to make sure there wasn’t something else lurking underneath.

He found a hidden gem: a paper citation for a Bronze Star granted to someone named Melvin Kuehn. There was no medal, just the document.

Smith went to the auctioneer and showed him the citation. But the auctioneer had no idea where it had come from: the name had nothing to do with the family hosting the estate sale.

“I got sick,” says Smith, 66, of Washington. “There was a family out there that would love to have it.”

A Navy veteran, Smith decided to do his best to find Melvin Kuehn or his family.

“One veteran to another, this document had to find its way home,” Smith says.

He didn’t know, of course, that Kuehn had died eight years earlier. As Smith poked around the internet, he didn’t get anywhere and never spotted Kuehn’s obituary.

“I hit dead end after dead end after dead end,” he said.

Every so often, he’d pull out the citation and search the web. As Facebook rose in popularity, he thought he might get lucky by sending messages to Facebook pages with the name Kuehn.

He got no nibbles, until earlier this month.

Michael Kuehn is a casual Facebook user. On June 3, he happened to spot an old message request — from a stranger named Paul Smith. In the message, Smith explained how he had come across a Bronze Star citation and his subsequent 10-year quest to get it into the right hands. Smith asked if Michael Kuehn might know a Melvin Kuehn.

Stunned, Michael Kuehn thought, “Wow! How did this happen?”

He called a phone number Smith had provided. Moments later, Kuehn was driving several miles to Smith’s home.

There, as Smith handed over the citation, they talked about the auction box. Somehow, someone had gained possession of the box, possibly not knowing the citation was in there. Maybe that person had bought the box at a thrift store and never looked under the newspaper pages. And maybe that person had lived at the home of the estate sale.

But those are just guesses. All that’s certain is that both men are glad that Smith looked under the newspapers in the auction box.

“Clearly, this document wanted to go home,” Smith says.

The Bronze Star remains missing, as do Melvin Kuehn’s other awards. Kuehn is going to contact the Veterans Administration to obtain replacement medals. And his new friend Smith is going to help him.

“He is a godsend,” Kuehn says.


© 2020 the Journal Star