By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
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By Jake Rossen
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By Kelsey McClure
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You can still see the cocky young Marine inside Norman Anthonopoulas Sr. Though his thick hair has changed from brown to white and his gut, once drum-tight, has gotten paunchy, you can still see the do-it-or-die fight in his eyes, the leatherneck determination that once took on Japanese machine-gun nests in the South Pacific and now does battle with the Department of the Navy. At issue is the former Marine corporal's claim that he was awarded the wrong medal in 1945, that instead he should have -- at least could have -- received the Medal of Honor. For years he has badgered the Pentagon to correct the error -- writing, pulling strings, trying everything conceivable short of armed insurrection.
The story has its origins in two news articles. The May 14, 1945, edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat tells how a local man was decorated for acts of heroism during the battle of Saipan: " ... last June Cpl. Norman J. Anthonopoulas, member of a stretcher-bearing detail, worked his way to extreme forward positions in the face of heavy fire to rescue fallen Marines who otherwise might have perished at the hands of the attacking Japanese."
For his bravery, he received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.
The second article appeared in the June 23, 1987, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Anthonopoulas read the story, about a Kirkwood man, Navy Lt. William Conklin, who, along with others aboard the frigate Stark, was honored for his heroism in the hours after the Stark was hit by Iraqi missiles. The May 17, 1987, attack in the Persian Gulf, which Iraq claimed was an accident, killed 37 sailors and injured 21 more, but the part of the story that caught Anthonopoulas' eye had to do with the medal awarded the men -- the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. The story quoted a military spokesman who said this medal was given "to any person who distinguished himself by heroism for acts of lifesaving or attempted lifesaving at the risk of one's own life." The story went on to say that the medal is "the highest ranking award given for heroism that does not involve combat (italics ours)."
Whoa! Hadn't he been in the thick of battle on Saipan? They were trying to kill him, for chrissakes! If that didn't qualify as combat, what did? Maybe the Navy and Marine Corps Medal was the wrong medal! If so, which was the right one? Thrice wounded in action, he'd already received the Purple Heart, and having demonstrated outstanding valor in the assaults on Tarawa and Tinian -- "The Greek," as a wiry, reckless kid of 19, took out enemy strongholds and disabled advancing tanks -- he'd already been awarded the Bronze Star and the Silver Star. These were no small tokens of military respect!
For the record, Anthonopoulas was not a stretcher-bearer; he was BAR man for his platoon, and he can still rattle off the nomenclature for the Browning automatic rifle, a 17-pound portable machine gun that he toted for most of two years in the Pacific. "You got more firepower with that one gun than the whole squad has -- 750 rounds per minute. That thing'd spit bullets until the damn barrel'd turn red." The weapon drew fire like a mobile-home park draws tornadoes: "They told us the life expectancy of a BAR man in battle was 12 minutes. Seems like I always had a bunch of guys after my ass." And though fate smiled on him, the Japanese on those islands weren't so lucky; Anthonopoulas believes he killed "between 130 and 140 enemy soldiers, and that don't count what I might've got in the middle of the night shooting at what you don't see."
How does he feel about his part in "the good war," as Studs Terkel calls it? "To me, it was a place where I should've been," he says. "A Marine is trained. You're given an order, you follow it through. You automatically do it. It wasn't something where you look at a chart and think, 'If I do this I'll get a bronze.'" He pauses. "You know where the real heroes are?" He points downward. "In the ground with white crosses over them. Guys like me, we got lucky."
Anthonopoulas went to the National Personnel Records Center on Page Avenue, repository of military-service records. Searching through his file, he saw his Purple Heart noted but no mention of the two gold stars representing subsequent woundings. He was further astonished to see no record of his Bronze Star, Silver Star or Navy Commendation. Must be an oversight, he thought, a clerical error. He remembered standing in formation at an airfield on Saipan, how proud he felt, the commander reading the citations, pinning the medals on his chest. Luckily he had some papers at home, locked away in an old metal box: orders stating that he had received the Bronze Star for "heroism in action" on Tinian, Marianas Islands, in July 1944; orders initiating an increase of "$2.00 per month Silver Star Medal pay." Anthonopoulas copied these and other records. He forwarded them to the Department of the Navy, intending to set things straight.
A month later, in October 1987, a hefty envelope arrived. The letter said that Anthonopoulas' records had been carefully reviewed and that "the award of the Silver Star and Bronze Star Medals cannot be verified. The correspondence provided was not on file in the records, and the fact that you have the medals in your possession is not sufficient to confirm these two awards." It was signed by F.P. Anthony, head of the Navy Department Board of Decorations and Medals. Anthony conceded that the Navy and Marine Corps Medal probably was "not the correct award for your service and I believe that if the same acts were performed today the award would be different. However, to now reconsider the award over 40 years after the fact would be a repudiation of the judgment of the Commander, Board of Review and the Secretary of the Navy, all of whom were involved in the original award decision.... It must be presumed that these officials were in the best position, at that time, to render a decision ... the board is of the opinion that the award was contemporary for the period ... and further review is not warranted."