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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Ralph Holewinski didn’t talk much about his role in WWII’s battle of Wake Island. His family had to read of it in a history book.

But historians, veterans and family herald him as a “hero” for his actions on Dec. 23, 1941. They say he deserves the Navy Cross, the service’s second-highest award after the Medal of Honor.

“My uncle is the type … who would have fought down to the last bullet,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Eric Holewinski, USS Kitty Hawk. “The only reason he did not die on that gun battery is because his commanding officer ordered him off that gun mount.”

Holewinski and his family are part of a six-year effort to get Ralph the Navy Cross. Holewinski’s father, Ernie, leads the charge from his home in Allen Park, Mich., with the help of retired Navy Capt. Dwight Vincent.

“I do believe over 60 years of waiting justifies some kind of consideration,” Ernie said via e-mail. “We are talking about a hero who was willing to give his life for his country and comrades.”

Battle on Wake IslandRalph joined the U.S. Marines fresh from high school to see the world beyond his hometown of Gaylord, Mich. With 449 Marines and about 70 sailors, he was sent to Wake Island, a U.S. territory in the north Pacific.

Japanese planes attacked Wake Island the day after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Outgunned and outmanned, U.S. forces nonetheless fended off the air attack.

But Japanese ships arrived Dec. 23. On that day, Ralph took control of a 3-inch gun. He and two civilian helpers took out two ships. Ralph’s commanding officer, 2nd Lt. Robert Hanna, wrote he had to order Ralph off the gun to take cover. Hanna also wrote how Ralph rushed the Japanese landing force with his rifle, earning a grenade in his back. He also was shot in both legs four times.

“The last time I ran anywhere was on the island,” Ralph said on a History Channel television special, “Wake Island: Alamo of the Pacific.” “I haven’t run since.”

After U.S. forces surrendered, Ralph spent the next three years in a Japanese prison camp.

Battle for the medalHe received the Bronze Star Medal with a “V” for valor in 1999, which began Ernie’s campaign for a higher honor.

Ernie isn’t alone. At the History Channel’s Wake Island reunion in 2004, the survivors signed a petition requesting that the Medals Board recognize Ralph as they did Hanna in 1946 — with the Navy Cross, Ernie said.

But Vincent told the Detroit Free Press the Navy requires new and compelling evidence to change a decision.

“The more my wife and I read and researched, the more determined we become to do whatever we can to help,” Holewinski said.

“You’d think [Ralph would] be bitter,” said his wife, April, who lives in Yokosuka. “But he’s a wonderful man, a very good man.”

So far, all of the correspondence has fallen on “deaf ears or blind eyes,” Ernie said. But he still wants people to hear Ralph’s story, he said: “The more people who know his story, the better chance he has of getting his just due.” He said Ralph now is 85 and is at the Veterans Hospital.

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