Lt. Cmdr. Wallace Graham Murphy didn’t say much about his military experience before he died in 1994. His daughters knew he had served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, but they didn’t realize just how much of a hero he was – until they were reunited with almost 20 of Murphy’s medals during a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall on Veterans Day.
Through Purple Hearts Reunited, a non-profit organization that finds lost military medals and keepsakes and returns them to the veterans or family members, Murphy’s medals were rediscovered more than 20 years after his death.
The medals were presented in a frame to Murphy’s daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The frame included photos and pieces of his uniform.
Beverly Smith, one of Murphy’s daughters who came down from Pennsylvania for the ceremony, said the family is grateful for getting to know Murphy better through Fike’s research.
“[Fike] explained to me more than I even knew about what a true war hero he was,” Smith said. “Our only regret is we can’t thank him for it in person.”
The three daughters who attended the ceremony are all teachers, and Smith said they want to use the framed medals and history to educate others.
“I would give anything for my father to be here today,” Smith said at the ceremony. “I would just tell him how proud we are of him and thank him for what he has done for our country.”
Not only did Purple Hearts Reunited find Murphy’s Purple Heart, but there was also a Bronze Star for valor and an Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with 13 campaign stars from the time he served on the USS Indianapolis, which means he was in every single campaign the ship was in.
The Indianapolis became famous through tragedy when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine after the U.S. ship delivered atomic bomb components to Tinian Island. The Indianapolis sank in 12 minutes, leaving survivors stranded in the water. Of the 1,200 sailors onboard, 800 survived the initial sinking, but only 316 made it out alive after five days at sea.
“His family said they remember him telling a few stories of him literally pulling his friends who had died out of their gun positions and stepping in and protecting the ship,” Fike said.
“It’s one of the biggest groupings we’ve ever had,” said Fike, who explained that medals are usually bundled together and sold for a higher value through collectors.
Murphy rose through the ranks and went on to serve in Korea. Not much is known of his service during that time, Fike said, but he received a Korean Service Medal with four campaign stars.
In Vietnam, Murphy was a senior officer and commanded Task Force 115, which was a riverine special operations group.
Fike said Murphy was part of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group, which had a small component of Navy men assigned to it.
“It’s basically the Green Berets in Vietnam,” he said. “In some of the photos, he’s actually wearing a green beret with a 5th Group flash. It’s very rare to see a Navy man wearing a green beret.”
Murphy had a long and honorable military career, and when he returned home from Vietnam, he needed to decompress. So he bought a motorcycle and toured the United States before eventually moving to Canada, where he died in 1994.
“Perhaps the medals were lost once he passed away in Canada,” Fike said. “They were found together and sold as a group.”
Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas Salinsky, Murphy’s grandson, said his grandfather inspired him to join the Navy.
“As a young kid, we kind of got little pieces of information from his experience in the Navy,” said Salinsky, a master-at-arms.
To be able to piece together Murphy’s history and to actually have that story come together and talk to the people who did the research was amazing, he said.
“It made me even more proud than I thought I could be,” Salinsky added. “I hope he’s looking down and seeing that we are all proud of him and still speaking his name and honoring him because he deserves it.”
Fike said that, on average, a single Purple Heart medal goes for $300. Purple Hearts Reunited received a grant from the Military Order of the Purple Heart to be able to bring these medals home, but donations also help Fike’s organization.
Purple Hearts Reunited began with Fike dedicating his own money and time, on top of his full-time job with the Vermont National Guard. Since its start about four years ago, Fike said around 300 medals have been returned across the country.
“It never gets old,” he said at the ceremony. “To be with the families and hear how appreciative they are, and to preserve that history, it keeps us going.”
Fike encourages veterans to have their medals engraved in case they’re lost or stolen so that an organization like Purple Hearts Reunited can return them.
Charlsy Panzino covers the Guard and Reserve, training, technology, operations and features for Army Times and Air Force Times. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.