Retired Army Master Sgt. James Hayden kept insisting that he didn’t want any fuss about him even as a two-star general leaned in to pin long-overdue Army service medals to his collar.
“I didn’t expect this,” said Hayden, 88. “I didn’t ask for any of it.”
But his family, friends and the Army insisted on the pageantry of a Joint Base Lewis-McChord ceremony.
Hayden earned it, they said, in the nearly three years he spent imprisoned by North Korean and Chinese troops during the Korean War.
On Wednesday, almost 61 years to the day since he was freed from the camp, the Army finally awarded Hayden medals he earned by serving during the Korean War and for enduring the physical and psychological hardships of a long imprisonment.
“Little slow in recognition, but it’s never too late,” said Maj. Gen. Terry Ferrell, commander of Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 7th Infantry Division.
The ceremony gave Ferrell and a few dozen other soldiers a chance to revel in Hayden’s story. They held the event in the headquarters of a battalion with a rich history in the Korean War and attracted Stryker soldiers who served recently as modern descendants of Hayden’s 9th Infantry Regiment.
They wanted to pay their respects to Hayden, who not only fought in Korea, but also received a Silver Star for valor he showed in battle fighting in Germany during World War II.
On the day that would lead to Hayden’s Silver Star — March 15, 1945 — Hayden was ordered to inspect a tunnel that his unit suspected was being used to hide German soldiers.
He hopped inside with a rifle. An enemy grenade damaged his rifle so much that Hayden could not return fire.
Hayden got another rifle, went back in and attacked.
His Silver Star commendation says he killed two German soldiers, wounded four more and single-handedly took 12 as prisoners.
“He put himself in harm’s way and he went back in,” Ferrell said. “He didn’t have to do that.”
Less than two months later, Hayden took a German bullet to the leg, ending his participation in that war. He received a Purple Heart for the wound.
Hayden’s service did not end there. He went to Fort Lewis after his recovery, where he met his wife, the late Dorothy Hayden. He stayed in uniform because he found that he liked military life.
By 1950, Hayden was back at war fighting to repel a North Korean and Chinese advance toward Seoul.
He was captured with more than 100 other soldiers on Dec. 1, 1950. Hayden remembered an all-night battle. By morning, the Americans were surrounded. Hayden’s commander chose to surrender rather than watch his soldiers die one-by-one.
As a prisoner, Hayden remembered receiving a cup of food in the morning and a cup in the afternoon. Temperatures in North Korea would drop to well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, making the weather one of the greatest threats to his survival.
Many did not survive. Hayden remembered burying fallen prisoners of war in cold, hard earth.
Hayden said he got by with the camaraderie of his fellow prisoners, and with his Catholic faith.
“Prayer,” he said, kept him alive.
He was not released until Sept. 5, 1953. He came home 65 pounds lighter and with bones so damaged by malnutrition that he spent a year in Madigan Army Medical Center while doctors tried to repair his spine.
“I was just doing my duty,” Hayden said.
“That’s what makes you special,” Ferrell told him.
Hayden would serve almost eight more years in the Army after he left Madigan, including another assignment in Germany. He retired with more than 18 years of total service.
After the Army, Hayden spent his years in Lakewood raising his three daughters and helping his wife manage a beauty salon.
He did not receive those Korean War medals until his family reached out to U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, and state Rep. Linda Kochmar, R-Federal Way. The lawmakers helped file the paperwork so the Army would recognize Hayden’s service.
Over the years, Hayden also lost his Silver Star. Hayden thinks his sister got it and did not return it.
It would be awfully nice to get that back, Hayden said, as he thanked Ferrell for the POW and Korean War medals.
“I will get you one,” Ferrell promised.
Less than half an hour later, a soldier in the division found a Silver Star that Ferrell could present to Hayden.
An officer read Hayden’s Silver Star commendation. Ferrell stood again to hand another medal to the long-retired veteran.
“I didn’t expect it, but I’m happy it happened,” Hayden said.
“Sometimes surprises are good, and this one you earned,” Ferrell said.
©2014 The (Tacoma, Wash.) News Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.