WWII veteran, 98, receives replacement medals — and a surprise decoration

By ROBERT NOTT | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: September 22, 2017

SANTA FE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — Joe Salazar had said his military medals, missing for decades, meant nothing to him.

During a ceremony Thursday morning, however, when he received replacements for the five missing medals and a Bronze Star that he not received previously — and did not expect — Salazar, 98, a veteran of World War II, became emotional.

“It’s great,” he said, wiping away tears with a handkerchief.

Salazar was surrounded by his wife, Celia, some of his children and other family at the home of his son, Joe Salazar Jr., on Camino Carlos Rael when U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham presented the medals. His daughter Pat Salazar, who serves in the Air National Guard, said her father served as a role model when she decided to join the service some 24 years ago, and he supported her from afar when she was deployed to Kosovo.

The medals — including the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal and the American Campaign Medal — were for Joe Salazar’s service with the U.S. Army Air Forces from 1942-45 as a staff sergeant with the 497th Bombardment Group on the Pacific isle of Saipan. He enlisted in December 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor prompted the U.S. to enter the war.

“Once the military was convinced that I knew my left foot from my right foot, they shipped me out,” he said with a laugh. “I just did what I had to do.”

But Lujan Grisham, a Democrat from Albuquerque, felt Salazar did much more than that. In tandem with one of her staff members, Matt Ruybal, and in collaboration with fellow U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, she began working in February to dig up Salazar’s military records and get reproductions of his original medals.

She also discovered that Salazar’s participation in the war merited him a Bronze Star, awarded to all service members who distinguished themselves “by heroic or meritorious achievement or service, not involving participation in aerial flight,” after Dec. 6, 1941 — the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The notion of political figures awarding long-overdue military medals is not new. In July, President Donald Trump awarded a Medal of Honor to a Vietnam War veteran for his bravery under fire as a medic in 1969. Earlier this year, congressional representatives in other states surprised veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War with honors they earned but never collected.

In Salazar’s case, the gesture included Lujan Grisham’s effort to reunite him with honors he had not seen in a half-century.

More than 50 years ago, Salazar’s wife, Celia, donated his medals, uniform, photos, personal letters and other military memorabilia to what is now known as the New Mexico National Guard Museum. But somehow the collection went missing. Recent efforts to recover the items were unsuccessful, the Salazars said, though museum officials are still searching.

Lujan Grisham’s mission to replace Joe Salazar’s medals was complicated by the fact that a 1973 fire in the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed many service records for veterans. Salazar was one of them.

Still, Grisham said, she and Ruybal were able to identify the honors Salazar earned during his time in uniform, including the Bronze Star that he hadn’t yet received.

Salazar silently stood by as Grisham lauded his service career. “It’s very difficult to earn these medals,” the congresswoman said. “Not everyone gets these.”

Salazar shipped out to the Pacific in 1944, just a few months after marrying Celia, then 18 and a junior at Santa Fe High School, in a small chapel at Pratt Army Airfield in Kansas. She had traveled there on a train from Lamy with her parents, the couple told The New Mexican in May, as they were preparing to celebrate their 73rd anniversary. Celia Salazar returned to Santa Fe after her new husband headed to Saipan.

For long stretches of time, she said, she didn’t know where Joe was serving or what kind of missions he was carrying out. “We didn’t know if he was safe,” she said.

When he landed on Saipan, Joe Salazar said Thursday, he was told the island was secure. “That was not true.”

Some Japanese soldiers had eluded capture and death and continued to fight on, often engaging in nighttime ambushes and sorties against the American invaders.

Plus, Salazar joked, there was a battle royal between Army soldiers and Marines that mirrored the conflict between their commanding officers, each of whom felt their military branch should be in charge of the operation.

Salazar did not speak to what he did on Saipan, other than to say he supported the bombardment group’s efforts to launch B-29 strikes against Japanese forces in the region. The worst hardship he faced, he said, was to go without food for a few weeks.

But Pat Salazar said her father is a hero.

“This is one of those awesome days,” she said as her father looked over his medals. “It makes the wait worthwhile.”

Joe Salazar’s great-granddaughter, Joy Cartier, was equally awestruck.

“I did not know that much about his military career,” said Joy, a junior at Santa Fe High School. “But it’s definitely impressive. Nobody gets these medals for just anything.”

Salazar challenged Grisham when she presented him with a Good Conduct Medal.

“That means you were behaving,” she said. He didn’t agree.

“Nobody believes I earned that one,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.


©2017 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)
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