Scotland man waits 70 years for WWII medals
SCOTLAND -- Delmar Strunk was never sure the moment would occur.
But Wednesday in Scotland, after nearly 70 years of waiting, Strunk and his heroic service took center stage.
Strunk, 92, received his medals for his service in World War II during a ceremony at the Scotland City Auditorium. Those medals weren't awarded when Strunk was honorably discharged in 1945 because many of the records showing he served in the famed "Merrill's Marauders" in the Pacific theater were lost. Military historian Jon Hittle, who emceed the event, said about 85 to 90 percent of the Marauders didn't get their medals. It's believed the unit in which Strunk served lost all of its records when an Army mule was driven off a cliff during the war, making the effort of finding out who served in what unit a challenge.
Strunk received four honors for his service in World War II from Army officials that he didn't receive when he came back from war in 1945. Those included the Bronze Star and Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the Ranger Tab decoration that will go on his sleeve and a Presidential Unit Citation for being a part of the Marauders. It's believed that only a handful of the Marauders are still living.
More than 125 people were seated in the city's auditorium to witness Strunk receive his honors. Strunk said he was delighted so many people from the community attended.
"Some of them didn't even get invitations," he said. "It really does mean a lot to me that so many people took time out of their lives to be here."
For the 50 years after the war that Strunk farmed outside of Scotland, he said he never thought about the war. And if he had a bad day, Strunk said he would think for a moment of the time he spent in the Burmese jungles to remind him just how good he had it. He was in good spirits Wednesday after his military service was honored in full.
"I tell you, it's a good feeling," Strunk said.
Strunk was among 3,000 who served in the 5307th Composite Unit of the United States Army, better known for being named after commander Frank Merrill. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for the all-volunteer unit in September 1943 to serve on a special mission that was unspecified but referred to as "dangerous and hazardous." After turning 21 years old in 1943, Strunk's training for jungle warfare made him a good choice for the group.
"I was young and active," Strunk said following the ceremony Wednesday. "I wanted excitement."
The Marauders traveled relatively light in Burma and fought considerably larger Japanese forces, usually behind Japanese battlelines.
Although he had to be treated for malaria and scrub typhus during the Marauders' five missions, he was one of only 300 soldiers to survive the 10-month mission from October 1943 to August 1944, and Strunk was among the even fewer numbers of soldiers who were fit to continue duty.
Strunk's return to South Dakota in 1945 on a 30-day leave allowed him to see his parents -- who didn't own a phone -- for the first time in four years. As he prepared to return to the Army, he received word of Japan's surrender and was soon honorably discharged. At the time, Strunk didn't receive any honors except for a ribbon.
"I didn't think much of it," Strunk recalled.
Strunk's wife, Velma, said she didn't think her husband would ever get the medals. Their 69th wedding anniversary is in October. She said family friends encouraged Delmar to get the medals he deserved, and she told him that he might as well try.
"I'm proud of him, for sure," she said.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., had trouble finding the words to explain the delay in the medals being awarded, saying it's still "better late than never." He commended Strunk's humility in waiting.
"How many of us would have been willing to wait 70 years for the medals we earned?" Thune asked the crowd. Work from the senator's office helped track down the dates and times needed to award Strunk his medals.
Thune regarded Strunk's combat heroism and valor in special operations, something that took its first form in World War II.
"On days like this you can see that humility come through," Thune said. "Our World War II veterans are an example to future generations."