A video screen grab shows Sen.  Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., presenting a Purple Heart to Tim Vanover, the father of World War II veteran Eler Vanover, who survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines.

A video screen grab shows Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., presenting a Purple Heart to Tim Vanover, the father of World War II veteran Eler Vanover, who survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines. (X/Senator Markwayne Mullin)

ENID, Okla. — Tim Vanover’s father died on Sept. 8, 1990; since then, Tim has been on a mission to find closure.

On Tuesday, June 25, 2024, Tim found a bit of closure when his father, Elmer Vanover, was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart during a ceremony at Oklahoma State University.

Elmer was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart for injuries he sustained as a prisoner of war in World War II. Elmer was captured by Japanese forces during the Battle of Bataan in the Philippines and survived the Bataan Death March, only to spend the next three years and six months as a prisoner of war.

When his father passed, Tim, then a vocational agriculture teacher at Waukomis High School, was at a livestock show near Enid with his students. The night before his father died, his father was asking for him from his hospital bed in Muskogee.

The sound of the air conditioner in Tim’s home drowned out the sound of the phone calls from family telling him he needed to visit his father. He did not hear the phone until the morning of his father’s death. He left for Muskogee as soon as he was off the phone but did not arrive in time to say goodbye.

A family man

Elmer “Red” Vanover rarely went by his legal first name, instead, those who knew him called him Red, a reference to his red hair.

When Red returned home, he was 70% disabled, according to Tim. He also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He often was found sitting, looking out at the pasture on his property, staring. Red suffered from what many call “the thousand-yard stare.”

According to Healthline, the thousand-yard stare is a term used to describe the often blank, expressionless expression on the face of those experiencing flashbacks and dissociation related to traumatic experiences. Tim believes his father likely was experiencing flashbacks to his time as a prisoner of war.

In spite of his PTSD and disabilities, Red immersed himself in work and family. When he first returned, hoping to farm, he bought land in Vinita, where he was raised. Unfortunately, due to his disabilities, he was physically unable.

After a short stint as a farmer, Red began working at the now-defunct Eastern State Hospital, a hospital for those experiencing mental health issues.

While working at the hospital, the Will Rogers Turnpike was announced in 1954. Red left the hospital and began working for the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority in the paint and signage department. By the end of his time working on the Will Rogers Turnpike for the OTA, he was the head of the department.

Red’s work for the OTA allowed him to take care of his family and put his son, Tim, through school at Oklahoma State University.

To his family, Red was a loving individual who sought the best for those around him and always made sure they had what they needed.

Red loved hunting, fishing and time with his family. Both Tim and his son, Taylor, said their most fond memories of Red are fishing and hunting.

Taylor, who was 10 when his grandfather passed, said he fondly remembers his time with Red.

“I remember going and picking blackberries and stuff with him,” Taylor said. “Just an awesome grandpa, someone that we miss dearly.”

For Red’s son, Tim, nothing topped fishing and hunting with his dad.

“Standing out there side by side fishing, catching fish and seeing who could catch the most, catch the biggest one — just having fun with my dad,” Tim said. “Quail hunting was probably right there with it. He loved to hunt. He was a tremendous shot.”

Red wasn’t one for hugs and kisses, likely because of the traumatic experiences from his past, but nonetheless, those who knew he loved and cherished them as much as they did him.

Bataan Death March

During World War II, Red was a member of the 200th Coast Artillery. The unit’s mission was to push back Japanese forces and delay Japanese advances in Manila Bay, according to the National World War II Museum.

On Jan. 7, 1942, the Battle of Bataan began. Japanese victory ensued, and the battle ended on April 9, 1942. But the horrors were just beginning for the surviving American and Filipino soldiers.

From April 9 to April 17, 1942, 60,000 to 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war marched 65 miles from the Bataan Peninsula to the modern-day Camp O’Donnell, where they were subjected to starvation, hard labor and death.

Those who could not continue the march to Camp O’Donnell were subjected to brutal conditions. At Camp O’Donnell, more than 1,500 Americans died.

Red labored in the coal mines, many of which had been previously mined. During his time in the coal mines, he experienced a cave-in that left him injured, according to Tim. Because of his injury, he momentarily stopped working. This led to him being beaten by a two-by-four object, Tim said. After the beating, Red began working once again.

After three years and six months, Red returned home. But he was a changed man and had been recommended for a Purple Heart by a military doctor due to the injuries he had sustained in captivity.

Journey to closure

When Tim’s father passed, he began going through his father’s records. In those records, he found the Purple Heart recommendation.

As Tim was not present for his father’s death, finding the recommendation sparked something inside of him. It became a way to find closure.

He wanted to honor his father and make sure the United States honored him as well.

The road to getting the Purple Heart and closure was bumpy and long. It took Tim a decade of work to secure his father’s Purple Heart.

Tim contacted Oklahoma state government officials, U.S. representatives and the governor of New Mexico. But he was repeatedly told the records of many World War II veterans, including his father’s, were destroyed in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. Because there were no records, Tim was told he had to find a way to substantiate the recommendation.

“The only thing I had was this one piece of paper with a doctor signed off on it, saying, you know, that he examined my father when he came back and the shape he was in and the wounds and scars that he had on his body, showing where he’d been hurt and crippled and everything, and had recommended him for a Purple Heart,” Tim said.

He began losing hope until the Vinita American Legion decided to honor Red with a bench in Vinita’s Veterans Park, where he met Rep. Rusty Cornwell, R-Vinita.

As Tim and Cornwell talked, Cornwell told Tim that something more should be done to honor Red.

“The next thing we know, they had got together, the American Legion and some politicians up there, and they named a section of Highway 60,” Tim said.

In 2023, a portion of U.S. 60 just east of Vinita was designated the “Bataan Death March Survivor Elmer ‘Red’ Vanover Memorial Highway.

Prior to a celebration of the designation, Cornwell asked Tim to bring documentation from Red’s time in the military, which included the Purple Heart recommendation. When Cornwell learned Red had never received his Purple Heart, he stepped into action.

Cornwell sent the documentation to U.S. Sen. Markwayne Mullin the same weekend of the designation. By the following Monday, Mullin’s office was asking for more information.

“About a month later, I get a phone call saying that they had got my dad’s Purple Heart awarded to him, and they couldn’t figure out why he never got it,” Tim said. “He (Red) never worried about getting his Purple Heart. He was trying to live, just trying to survive.”

Had it not been for Cornwell, his wife, Sherry Cornwell, and the help from Mullin and his staff, Tim said he would’ve given up on his years-long pursuit. But he didn’t have to, instead, he found closure and a way to honor his beloved father.

“I couldn’t talk, I’m just about like I am right now,” said Tim, while he choked up over the phone. “We get emotional every time I think it’s, you know, just to think of what my dad went through — everything he went through in war and his life. It’s been really emotional for me.”

To Tim, his dad was an amazing father, but above all else, he was proud to be an American.

“I got to say goodbye to him yesterday,” Tim said.

(c)2024 the Enid News & Eagle (Enid, Okla.)

Visit the Enid News & Eagle

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now