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After nearly 70 years of waiting, Robert Potter receives medals for service in World War II

Robert Potter was just a teenager when he began transporting cargo and troops through dangerous South Pacific waters for the U.S. Coast Guard.

As a member of the Merchant Marines in World War II, Potter was responsible for keeping the fires and boilers running inside the bowels of a steamship. It was hot, he said, sometimes reaching 130 degrees.

He was 19 when he was honorably discharged. On Wednesday, nearly 70 years after his service, Potter finally received the medals, pin and ribbon he earned. For decades, the government didn't recognize his service, and after it did, lost discharge papers kept the medals and other benefits out of Potter's grasp.

U.S. Coast Guard officers from Portland, Oregon, on Wednesday presented Potter with the items at the Marquis nursing home in Oregon City.
"This has been long, long overdue," said Cmdr. Jon Hellberg.

Merchant mariners played a critical support role for the Navy and other branches during World War II, ferrying fuel, troops and cargo to hot spots where fighting was taking place. Even though merchant vessels didn't have a combat mission, it could be a dangerous job. It's estimated 733 ships were sunk in the war.

As a watertender, Potter kept the steam ships fueled. "It was some of the most grueling and hard work you can imagine," Hellberg said.

After he was discharged, Potter built a home on South End Road in Oregon City and raised five children there. He continued to work on or near ships, shipping cargo up and down the Columbia River until he retired in 1988.

Congress never conferred official veterans' status on Potter's service, meaning merchant mariners didn't get to take advantage of G.I. Bill or home loan programs that veterans of the other branches did. Only in 1988, following a federal court ruling, were they given official discharge papers and allowed access to federally administered medical care by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Potter's daughter, Kathy Greisen, estimates it was around that time the VA sent her father his discharge papers. They were stuffed away in an envelope, she said, and became lost in a box.

Earlier this year, Greisen's husband, John, accidentally discovered the yellowing papers and contacted the VA. Potter's medals, including the Victory Medal and the Pacific War Zone Medal, were still held with the Coast Guard.

John Greisen asked the Coast Guard in Portland if they'd be willing to honor Potter and present him with the medals. They jumped at the chance.

With his new pin on his jacket, Potter was thankful to finally receive recognition for his service.

"There are a lot of people who didn't make it back and are unknown," he said. "I'm lucky."

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