Purple Heart designations for city, county draw crowds

By Brian Sanders

Kansas City-area resident Harold Hewitt, a former resident of Holton, doesn’t believe he’s a hero.

A former radio tech first class in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Hewitt was aboard the U.S.S. DuPage in January 1945 when he and his shipmates found themselves under attack by Japanese kamikaze pilots.

“A Japanese suicide bomber hit our ship, and I got blown into the water,” the 91-year-old Hewitt said here on Monday.

Hewitt was in hospital for six weeks, then went on to Okinawa. The injuries he received in the attack on the DuPage earned him a Purple Heart, the military decoration awarded to military personnel who are either killed or wounded in the heat of battle.

Here on Monday, Hewitt continued to insist that he was no hero, but outside the Jackson County Courthouse, a fellow Purple Heart recipient, Holton resident Erich Campbell, reminded him that the two of them have “a connection.”

“If it wasn’t for you,” Campbell told Hewitt, “it wouldn’t be for me.”

Hewitt, Campbell and a few other Purple Heart recipients from the Holton and Jackson County area were joined by more than 100 area residents that evening for a ceremony honoring Holton’s designation as a “Purple Heart City” and Jackson County’s designation as a “Purple Heart County.” The designations are a recognition of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a fraternal organization that promotes recognition of the military decoration.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Hewitt said of Holton’s recognition as a “Purple Heart City,” the second city in Kansas to receive the designation after Topeka. Jackson County’s designation as a “Purple Heart County” makes it the only county in Kansas so far with the designation.

Campbell wasn’t alone in reminding Hewitt that people look upon him and others like him as heroes. After reading aloud the proclamation signifying Holton’s recognition, Mayor Robert Dieckmann reminded those present that on a personal level, the definition of a “hero” changes with time.

“Growing up, I had a lot of heroes, people who could hit the ball — we had a hedge in Netawaka, and if they could hit a ball over it, they were my heroes,” Dieckmann said. “But I’ll tell you what, I have never been around so many true heroes in my life as we have here.”

A handful of Purple Heart recipients were in attendance at Monday evening’s ceremony, in which Holton resident Brad Stauffer, a Purple Heart recipient, read the “last roll call,” described by Campbell as “a tribute made by soldiers to their fallen comrades” that is “sometimes painful to listen to.” Stauffer read through a list of more than 45 who were wounded or killed in the line of duty from this area.

Purple Heart recipients who were present — six in all — acknowledged themselves, while families of five other Purple Heart recipients whose wounds were not fatal acknowledged that they represented their honored relatives. As the 37 names of those killed in the line of duty were read, the crowd remained silent in accordance with the tradition of the “last roll call.”

At the end of the evening, Hewitt left for home with another Purple Heart in his possession — a quilt made by Holton resident Charlene Tudor with the likeness of the military designation sewn into the middle. Tudor crafted the quilt as “a small token of my appreciation” for the likes of Hewitt, who Campbell said lost 44 of his friends in the attack on the DuPage.

Campbell also acknowledged the volunteer efforts of those who helped get the “Purple Heart Community” designations for the city and the county, as well as those who contributed their services to Monday’s ceremony. Those included We-Ta-Se American Legion Post 410’s color guard, as well as the Central Elementary School Singers, who performed patriotic songs prior to and during the ceremony.