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Fallen WWII pilot receives medals 70 years later

A special ceremony was held on Wednesday at American Legion Post 9 to honor Owensboro native David Lee Wilhite with six posthumous service medals 70 years after he was killed in World War II.

Joined by local and state officials, Congressman Brett Guthrie presented the medals — Silver Star, the third highest military honor for valor; Purple Heart, given to soldiers wounded or killed in battle; European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal and Bronze Star; World War II Victory Medal; Gold Star lapel button; and Air Medal and Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster.

"Unfortunately, so many (veterans) never got the honor they deserved," Guthrie said. "... We will do whatever it takes to get them the honor they deserve because they earned it."

David Lee Wilhite was a 23-year-old captain and pilot with the 566th Bomber Squadron when his B-24, carrying a crew of 11, was shot down over France in 1944.

His nephews, James and Fred Wilhite, accepted the medals on the family's behalf.

The Wilhites said they were unaware that their uncle's body was found until about a year ago. They credited a researcher who is collecting facts about a book for bringing the new information to light.

"This means everything," said Fred Wilhite, a McLean County resident, about receiving the medals and knowing that his uncle was never missing. "... When we lost him, it left a big hole in our family for the last 70 years. It affected my father greatly. He never really got over losing his brother."

David Lee Wilhite's remains are buried in Normandy, France, at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

"If my grandparents had of known, I'm sure they would've brought his remains back here," Fred Wilhite said.

Guthrie said after the ceremony that there is "a simple process" for veterans or veterans' families to apply for medals, which can be for ones never received or lost, by contacting his office.

From there, a military liaison works on the request by accessing records or by speaking with surviving members of a combat unit to help verify stories.

"We want to make sure the medals are justly awarded," Guthrie said. "And over the past few years, we've had grandfathers to start telling their grandkids that they earned a medal but never received it."

The Wilhites are now looking to put their uncle's medals on public display.

"We don't know where we're going to display them yet but we're going to be talking to local museums here and in McLean County," Fred Wilhite said.

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