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American Legion post displays World War II hero’s award

Army Pvt. George J. Peters never wore the Medal of Honor he earned for his heroic actions when he stormed a Nazi machine gun nest in a farmer’s field along Germany’s Rhine River in 1945.

A year later, in a peculiar twist for posthumous recipients of the nation’s highest valor award, Peters’ father did wear the medal when a general strapped the azure ribbon attached to the five-point gold star around his neck.

With “his eyes filling with tears,” Joseph Peters listened to speakers praise his son who had given his life to save his comrades five days after he had turned 21.

A newspaper article about the ceremony in the Rhode Island governor’s office shows a picture of Lt. Gen. Oscar Griswold fastening the ribbon with the medal around the neck of the elder Peters. His wife is sitting in the background. Her eyes are cast in a blank stare.

It is the only photographic evidence the Congressional Medal of Honor Society has of the medal awarded to the soldier from Cranston, R.I.

By fate, the medal, or perhaps a duplicate that was made for the Peters family, is on display 67 years later at American Legion Post 8 in Las Vegas.

How the family lost possession of it, and why the soldier’s name was not engraved on the medal’s backside, remains a mystery.

But thanks to an observant, retired and now-deceased Army sergeant major, whose son lives in Henderson, the medal deservedly has a place of honor for veterans to admire instead of being shadowed in obscurity in someone’s private collection.

THE MEDAL’S ODYSSEY

Leo Robillard had made a career in the Army serving as an enlisted soldier in both World War II and the Korean War. After 30 years and attaining the rank of sergeant major, Robillard retired in Cumberland, R.I., which is 14 miles north of Cranston, where the Peters family lived and where a school is named for Pvt. George J. Peters.

One day while walking through a swap meet in Cumberland, Robillard was shocked to see a Medal of Honor nestled on a blanket. Although it is illegal to sell the nation’s highest valor medal, “a voice rang out with a price,” recalled his son, Wayne Robillard.

Without hesitation, Leo Robillard, pulled out his wallet and paid an unknown price for the medal, not for himself but to rescue it from falling into the hands of an undeserving military impostor or “wannabe.”

“I remember him coming home and telling my mom, ‘Look what I found at a swap meet. A guy was selling it. You don’t sell these things,’ ” said Wayne Robillard, 67.

For three decades the medal had been kept among his parents’ personal belongings. They later moved from Rhode Island to live with him in Henderson.

After they died several years ago, “a weird set of things happened,” he said last week.

While sifting through a box of his mother’s belongings, he found a case emblazoned with the words “United States of America” and the image of an eagle.

As he pulled the case from the storage box, it slipped from his grasp and fell to the closet floor.

“The backing came off and there was this little piece of paper with the guy’s name (Pvt. George J. Peters). That’s how we knew whose medal it was,” Wayne Robillard said. “My dad never took the box apart, so he didn’t know who it belonged to. It really belongs to the family.”

He consulted his friend, Del Horsley, a Marine Vietnam War Purple Heart recipient, about what should be done with the medal.

“It definitely doesn’t belong in a garage sale,” said Horsley, who made a suggestion. “It deserves a place of honor, and the American Legion is a place of honor.”

AVERTING STOLEN VALOR

Thomas A. Cottone Jr., a retired FBI special agent, has exposed military impostors and arrested peddlers of counterfeit Medals of Honor.

There are stiff penalties for illegally wearing, manufacturing or selling one of the medals. Convictions for crimes involving fake Medals of Honor carry penalties of up to one year in prison and fines from $250 to $100,000 for individuals and $200,000 for corporations.

In a case in the mid-1990s, Cottone’s investigation into HLI, or His Lordship Industries, led to company officials admitting they had manufactured at least 300 fake medals.

The Hauppauge, N.Y., company was the government’s contractor for producing Medals of Honor. In addition to losing its chance to win more than $150 million in government contracts, Cottone said the company was fined $80,000 and ordered to return $22,500 in illegal profits from the sale of fake medals.

Cottone was relieved when he learned last week that the hallmark on the back of the medal at American Legion Post 8 was “B.B. Co.,” a World War II-era manufacturer instead of HLI or else it would have to be confiscated. The medal also bore the proper notation on the back of the “Valor” bar: “The Congress To” stamped in capital letters.

“I don’t have any doubt this is an authentic World War II-era Medal of Honor, but how this medal came to be is a mystery,” Cottone said, adding that the American Legion post “is an appropriate place to display a Medal of Honor as opposed to a private collection.”

Laura Jowdy, archivist for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society headquartered in Mount Pleasant, S.C., said it is “extremely rare” for a duplicate medal to be given to the family of a posthumous recipient. It’s also inappropriate for anyone other than the recipient, including family members, to wear the medal.

Since Congress established the Medal of Honor for the Navy in 1861 and soon after for the Army during the Civil War, there have been 3,459 recipients and 19 double recipients. Only 79 recipients are still living.

The complete list includes two Nevada recipients.

Army Cavalry 1st Sgt. James Blair, of Camp Winfield Scott, Nev., was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallant conduct during campaigns and engagements with Apaches in the Arizona Territory during the winter of 1872 and 1873.

World War II Navy Lt. Cmdr. Bruce A. Van Voorhis, of Fallon, a patrol bomber pilot, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity” when he single-handedly attacked and destroyed Japanese installations on Greenwich Island in 1943.

A Medal of Honor “found in a swap meet is not uncommon,” Jowdy said about the one linked to Pvt. Peters. “It could be an unpresented medal that got out of the military’s inventory.”

Regardless, Jowdy said, “It’s a wonderful story of a Medal of Honor that was put in a place where people can see it and celebrate it.”

HOME OF HONOR

After researching Peters’ citation, Horsley, the Vietnam War veteran, contacted then-Post 8 Commander Cliff Adele about giving the medal a proper home.

According to Wayne Robillard, Adele reached out to one of Peters’ last living relatives, an aunt, who agreed it needed a permanent display for veterans and visitors to see at the American Legion post rather than returning it to Rhode Island or even Peters’ namesake school.

Past Post 8 Commander Jerry Autrey assembled a display and made a shadow box for Pvt. Peters’ other awards. They are in a glass cabinet in the company of other medals from past wars that have been given to the post along with the Army and Navy uniforms of two brothers who served in World War I.

Autrey tried to iron out creases in the Medal of Honor neck ribbon, where it had been folded in its case for 67 years.

He determined that Peters jumped in the last large paratrooper assault during World War II, Operation Varsity. It involved 16,000 U.S. and British paratroopers, the most ever in history.

A radioman with the 17th Airborne Division’s 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Peters landed with 10 others in a drop zone near Fluren, Germany, on the morning of March 24, 1945.

“It was an open battlefield,” said Autrey, a retired Army military policeman. “They got pinned down by the machine gun and Peters is returning fire. He got hit. He crawled up, threw some grenades and took out the machine gun. He saved his buddies and was killed in action right there.”

According to the citation, Peters and other soldiers from Company G had landed 75 yards from the German machine gun nest.

While separated from their equipment bundles and struggling to free themselves from their parachutes, Peters rose with his rifle and made a charge to draw the machine gun’s fire away from his buddies.

“He was struck and knocked to the ground by a burst,” the citation reads.

“Heroically, he regained his feet and struggled onward. Once more he was torn by bullets, and this time he was unable to rise. With gallant devotion to his self-imposed mission, he crawled directly into the fire that had mortally wounded him until close enough to hurl grenades which knocked out the machine gun.”

Rod Carlone, commander of American Legion Post 8, said, “Next to being with the family, I can’t think of a better place for this medal to be than an American Legion post. We cherish this very much.

“To most Americans, it’s probably the one single medal everybody has ever heard about,” said Carlone, a retired Navy captain and pilot.

“These mean so much and are so valuable. To think there’s one on the loose out there like what happened to this one is very surprising. But it can happen.”

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at
krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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