Crittenden retrieves father’s lost World War II medals
Gilbert Crittenden, father of Veteran Affairs Secretary S. Joe Crittenden, served as a rifleman during World War II and was awarded the Bronze Star. COURTESY
S. Joe Crittenden, former deputy chief and current Veteran Affairs secretary, right, takes part in a wreath laying ceremony with then Principal Chief Bill John Baker at the Cherokee Warrior Memorial in 2014. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – Cherokee Nation Veteran Affairs Secretary S. Joe Crittenden knew little about his father Gilbert’s World War II service, but he set out to learn more while at the same time retrieving the medals and awards his father earned for that service.
Crittenden, 76, said he learned U.S. Veterans Affairs is willing to replace lost medals and certifications one time for a veteran or their family. As the oldest of seven children, he requested, through the office of Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin, to have his father’s medals and awards replaced.
“I had seen some of the medals way back, but over the years with people moving…the only ones I could remember seeing for certain was a lapel pin for honorable discharge and the other one was the Purple Heart. I knew he was wounded,” he said.
Veteran liaison for Mullin’s office, William Barnes, took Crittenden’s request forward, retrieved the medals and awards and had them placed in a shadow box to present them at a November ceremony to dedicate a veteran’s memorial in Tahlequah.
“From the Department of the Army we got this letter, and it was to Congressman Mullin. It says, ‘We have verified Mr. Crittenden’s entitlement to the following awards: the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart Medal, the Prisoner of War Medal, the American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle East Campaign Medal with a one silver service star, World War II Victory Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge, Honorable Service Lapel Button for World War II and the Belgian Fourragere Award,” Crittenden said. “He was in combat in France, Belgium and Germany. I’m the oldest child, and I don’t remember talking to my father about a Bronze Star. The Bronze Star is not a medal everybody gets.”
He added that by requesting his father’s medals, he learned a lot more about his father’s service. He had served as a rifleman with Company C, 60th Infantry, 9th Division and took part in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and France in December 1944 when German forces made a last desperate attempt to repel allied forces in Europe. He was captured April 3, 1945, and was liberated by the U.S. Army on April 18, 1945. Gilbert Crittenden was discharged on Nov. 6, 1945 – Joe’s first birthday.
“He loved this country. He loved serving this country. He went to work, out in California, after he got out of the service. He worked for the government, a civil service job, before we came back home,” he said. “It meant a lot to me. It is part of my dad’s history that I didn’t know much about. He wasn’t very big as far as stature. He wasn’t that tall and only weighed 145 pounds, according to his discharge papers. But he was like a red wasp. He didn’t know fear. The only thing I know of he feared were tornadoes for some strange reason.”
In 1975 it was discovered his father had leukemia, and “he didn’t last a long time.”
“We all leave at some point in this life,” Crittenden said. “We lost dad way too early. Dad was, to me, my father, he was someone I learned from, and he was like an older brother in a sense. We hunted together, we fished together, we farmed together, we cut wood together – we were together all of the time growing up. He was an outdoorsman. He would have rather been outdoors anytime as to be cooped up in the house, which was fine with me because I like being outside, too.”
He said he remembers sitting with his father at a hospital in Fort Smith, Arkansas, when the doctor came in to confirm the diagnosis made at W.W. Hastings Hospital in Tahlequah.
“I was the only one sitting there when the doc came in. He told my dad…’you’ve got two options. You can go home and enjoy each day as you can or we can fight it, but that’s your call.’ Dad calmly looked at him and said, ‘I’ve been in some rough scrapes in my life before. Let’s just get after it and fight this thing.’”
He said that’s what his father did, but “it wasn’t meant to be.” Gilbert Crittenden was 51 years old when he died on Sept. 18, 1975.
Though he is in possession of his father’s medals and awards, Crittenden said they “belong to his family.” He is considering displaying the shadow box in his office at the Veterans Center in Tahlequah while he is Veteran Affairs secretary and then later possibly passing the display to one of his younger siblings.
“I’m eternally grateful that they (Mullin’s office) helped with this for a deserving warrior, a tribal member, a good country boy from Adair County who served his country during a time we were engaged in a war we had to win,” he said. “He answered the call and he lived through it. I’m sure he made a hand while he was there like all the others did. He didn’t really care about the notoriety. He just wanted to go do his part and come home to his family.”