Still At War

More than 50 years after World War II, Marine Corps veteran Norman Anthonopoulas Sr. keeps fighting for the Medal of Honor he believes he earned

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."

Anthonopoulas read that and thought Anthony had lost his mind. "He's telling me he knows a mistake was made, but he's not going to have it corrected even though the regs are the same today as they were 40 years ago." Inside the envelope with the letter was a small, velvet-covered box containing a Purple Heart medal, bearing onegold star. "It was insulting," spits Anthonopoulas. "To get me quiet he sends me a Purple Heart." You don't get a guy like Anthonopoulas quiet, not when he's lathered up with righteousness of cause. Now the fight was on two fronts: get the record corrected to show the Bronze and Silver stars, and get the Navy and Marine Corps Medal amended to something else.

The Medal of Honor is the supreme award for valor in combat. It is presented by the president, in the name of Congress, to members of the armed forces who have performed acts of personal bravery and self-sacrifice "above and beyond the call of duty." There are strict criteria attached: The deed must be verified by at least two eyewitnesses. It must be so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes the honoree's gallantry from lesser forms of bravery. It must involve risk of one's life, and it must be an act that, if not done, would not subject the candidate to any form of criticism. Since 1861, fewer than 3,500 people have received the medal.

The Anthonopoulas residence sits on a quiet street in South St. Louis. On the front door is a brass knocker in the shape of the Marine Corps insignia. In a living room furnished with plastic-covered chairs and sofa, Anthonopoulas pulls out a stack of letters, testimonials he solicited from members of his old unit. "It took me awhile to get hold of those guys," he says. "I was calling all over the country, running up phone bills of $200-$300 a month." In all, there were 28 letters praising Anthonopoulas as a bona fide hero, some typed, some jotted in shaky cursive. "On Tarawa, The Greek was drafted by Col. Shoupe to be his runner," wrote Lyle Brockman of Le Mars, Iowa. "Pinned down by enemy fire, The Greek attacked and eliminated two machine gun emplacements and neutralized a bunker. He then carried the colonel back to our own lines. The colonel owes him his life." Ray Dunlap of Phoenix wrote, "I do remember that Anthonopoulas received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart while on Saipan in November, 1944. The reason I remember this is that I was a little envious that such a skinny guy could receive so many medals."

But even this wasn't enough to impress F.P. Anthony, the faceless bureaucrat who continued to stonewall. There was simply no precedent for someone turning in a sheaf of eyewitness accounts, asking for not one but two medals for bravery. Beyond that, there was a time limit on the awarding of such medals -- "within five years after the date of act or service justifying the award."

Politicians often get the attention of military brass. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond and former Sen. John Danforth wrote letters on Anthonopoulas' behalf, but, he contends, Anthony "put the kibosh on that." He sees Anthony, a reservist, as his nemesis: "He's trying to protect the integrity of the medals and decorations, but he's got to give what's due. I'm not asking for anything I think I didn't earn, but I want what I earned and I'm not gonna let some flyboy in the reserves take that away from me."

Finally, Anthonopoulas says, he found an accomplice at the Pentagon: "I won't give his name, but he did an end-run around Anthony. He hand-walked my papers up the hall to Gen. Alfred Gray, commandant of the Marine Corps. After Gray got them it didn't take much longer. I got a review board, and bang -- next thing I know they sent for me." In 1988, at a small ceremony, Gen. Gray awarded Anthonopoulas his Silver Star and Bronze Star. It was then that Anthonopoulas met Anthony. An-thonopoulas says he turned to Anthony and, in front of Gen. Gray, "told him he wouldn't make a pimple on a grunt's ass." A "grunt" is a combat infantryman. "That did not go over," says Anthonopoulas, amused by the memory. "I should've bit my tongue, but I didn't, and I've been paying for it ever since." Anthony could not be reached for comment.

Ten years later, Anthonopoulas still petitions for the medal he believes he deserves. Most recently, he sent letters from three retired generals and a Medal of Honor recipient, all of whom unequivocally recommend Anthonopoulas for his own Medal of Honor. "I don't mind being judged by my peers," Anthonopoulas emphasizes, "and you know who my peers are? The guys who were there. In that situation." Certainly not F.P. Anthony, who still holds the top berth at the Department of Decorations and Medals. Because Anthonopoulas insulted the man before his superior, Anthonopoulas believes, Anthony's position toward him has hardened to stone. "I'll never get a fair shake with him there," says Anthonopoulas ruefully. "I'm just hoping I can outlive him.