It was the sight of his Marine uniform jacket that he hadn’t seen in 54 years that rolled back the clock in Hal Loew’s mind.
“There we are,” the 87-year-old World War II veteran said while he sat in his Las Vegas apartment Tuesday and used a knife to open a rectangular, cardboard box.
Inside it was a bright red Marine Corps jacket cover. And inside that was his private first class, olive-drab dress jacket with a red-outlined chevron on each sleeve.
“I can’t believe it,” the white-haired man said with a satisfactory smile. “It’s all ready to re-enlist.”
“There’s my three stars on Southeast Asia. Expert rifle. There’s the sea patch for seagoing Marines. A sea horse. I’d like to get back in that jacket, but I can’t do it.
“It’s quite a pleasure. It brings back a lot of memories.”
Then, with a thud, an inch-thick document titled “USMC Casualty Report” fell from the box and hit the floor.
“This is the report that was sent to my parents. I don’t remember ever seeing this before,” he said.
The vintage 1944 jacket, the wounded Marine paperwork, the memories coming into focus were all the result of another Marine’s family in Wylie, Texas, who, with the help of Junior ROTC cadets, solved the mystery of the missing uniform and reunited it with the man who wore it.
“They Googled my name and found me here,” Loew said. “They called me and told me they were going to send me my jacket and that they didn’t want any compensation or anything.
“I know that it came from another Marine that it’s not a hoax,” he said.
Loew last saw his uniform before he came to Las Vegas from Los Angeles in 1960. He said he had moved with his 13-year-old daughter to avoid a more costly California divorce. But when they unpacked their belongings, his uniform wasn’t among them.
For 51 years it was lost and almost forgotten until 2011 when Valerie Lee and Heather Haberman — daughters of retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Steve Donelson — were shopping for something unique to buy him for Father’s Day.
“They knew I liked military memorabilia and specifically Marine Corps items,” Donelson said in an email.
“They went on eBay and found the coat. They liked it because it had the ribbons and patches still on it and it also came with the complete records of the Marine who wore it.”
His daughters submitted the winning bid of $150.
Donelson said he “never really looked at it” in detail until he moved to Dallas and brought it to show a Junior ROTC class he was teaching.
The cadets were intrigued by the uniform and records, especially cadet Lt. Lisette Pecina who he said “insisted we try to find Mr Loew. She initiated the research, found his address and phone number, wrote up the questions for the interview and was there during all the phone conversations.”
Donelson called Loew with the good news a few weeks ago.
“I asked Mr Loew if he wanted the coat back. He did, so I boxed it up and mailed it out. I felt it was more important for him to have this piece of his history back so he could pass it on to his family. I’m very glad he has it now after all these years, and I’m glad he is happy,” Donelson said Thursday.
After he opened the box, Loew recounted his service from the day he signed up as a 17-year-old with his father’s permission in Peoria, Ill., to the battles he fought as a 20 mm anti-aircraft gunner on board the USS Colorado.
In two years, from 1944 to the end of the war in 1945, he endured four major engagements with Japanese warplanes in the South Pacific.
The first was in Leyete Gulf. “We were hit by two suicide planes, the kamikazes.” During the attack, he was slammed against a box and injured his back.
After the ship was repaired, “we went north to Lingayen Gulf, on the northern end of Luzon. We had a big engagement there.”
During the invasion on Jan. 8, 1945, he was wounded by shrapnel. “It cut my nose. My nose was just hanging there. And because we had so many casualties, the doctor couldn’t see me.”
He was treated by a corpsman “who cut off part of the gristle with his scissors in order to get my nose straight.”
“He just taped it. Two weeks later when the doctor looked at it he said, ‘That corpsman did a good job. It’s healing perfectly, and if I had got to you, I would have stitched it and you would have had big scars.’ So that was a blessing in disguise,” Loew said.
From there the USS Colorado sailed to Okinawa, where the battleship was pummeled by aircraft attacks during a span of at least two months.
“We slept right at our battle stations. It’s not like being in a foxhole, but it was bad,” he said.
When the war ended a few weeks after the atomic bombings of August 1945, the USS Colorado anchored near the USS Missouri, where the Japanese surrender ceremony was held on Sept. 2, 1945.
“We were one of the first ships to go into Tokyo Bay, where they had all their armaments, concealed weapons along the coast,” he recalled. “They put big white flags over them so we could see them. It would have been an immense disaster if we would have tried to invade anywhere around there.”
While the peace agreement was being signed on the USS Missouri, a ceremony was held on the USS Colorado to award Purple Heart medals to Loew and other Marines.
But it wasn’t recalling the battles or the award ceremony that brought tears to Loew’s eyes and made his voice crack with emotion. Instead, it was the memory of the USS Colorado sailing underneath the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco Bay.
“It was loaded with people. A lot of the tugs had their hoses (shoot) up in the air. It was wonderful,” he said.
For Harold J. Loew, Tuesday, the day he got his uniform coat back, was “really a wonderful day.”
“It really brings back the memories. It makes me so proud,” he said. “I was just one of a cog in great organization like the Marine Corps.”
Contact Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2.