Four reissued World War II medals jog man's memory.

Chopstick

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I never realized just how many WW II Vets we have in this area. Another interesting story in my local paper.

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10077/1043605-55.stm

When World War II veteran George Yochem went to his mailbox a few months ago, he expected the usual assortment of bills and sales fliers. But this day was different; this day he heard from Uncle Sam. Again.

Mr. Yochem opened a box addressed to him from the Department of Defense and found four medals he had earned while fighting in Europe during World War II.

The medals -- the prestigious Silver Star among them -- had been lost for more than 65 years. The Silver Star is the nation's third highest award for gallantry, ranking after the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor.

Mr. Yochem had earned the Silver Star for fighting in five battles starting at D-Day on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Among his acts of valor was using a machine gun to shoot down three German fighter planes that were strafing U.S. troops.

He initially sent the awards -- the Star, the World II Victory Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal and Good Conduct Medal -- home to a niece during the war. But her 6-year-old son misplaced them, and they were never found.

Over the years of his busy postwar life, Mr. Yochem's niece kept urging him to get the government to reissue them.

He finally started that process more than a year ago. When they appeared at the doorstep of his Green Tree apartment, they "opened a flood of memories," he said.

Mr. Yochem graduated from Perry High School on the North Side in June 1942. He was drafted and inducted into the Army in December of that year.

"I marched to Penn Station with the other recruits in a pouring rain. I was crying while I marched because I missed my parents and family so much," he said.

The new soldier soon found himself at Camp Edwards in Massachusetts and, after training in Bridgewater, England, was assigned to the 474th AAA Automatic Weapons Battalion, an anti-aircraft outfit. He landed in France on D-Day.

"I was climbing down the ropes to the landing craft and a silver bracelet my mom and dad had given me slipped off my wrist. I reached down for it, but it went into the water. I couldn't dive in because of all the equipment we had to carry. And, I was dodging bullets. The bracelet is probably still there off the coast of France," he said.

Mr. Yochem made it through D-Day, but there was still plenty of fighting ahead. He was involved in battles in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. One of the worst, he remembered, was the Battle of the Bulge.

"It was a fierce battle, a terrible situation. We did what we had to to survive. We fought in deep snow. One day German troops were advancing and I took shelter in a bombed out hole in the ground. My feet were frostbitten and I lost all my toenails," he said.

He still goes to the Veterans Affairs Hospital periodically for treatment for his feet, but considers himself lucky to have survived.

Another memory that haunts Mr. Yochem is what he saw during the liberation of a concentration camp at Nordhausen, Germany.

"It's a terrible shame, the crimes committed," he said.

In addition to his skill with weapons, Mr. Yochem had another talent the Army found useful. He's a good sketch artist and had received a scholarship to attend art school before he was drafted.

His unit's World War II history published after the war devotes several pages to Mr. Yochem and a valuable service he rendered. He often went out ahead of the unit to scout terrain, then returned to draw maps of it from memory. Officers in the 474th used the maps to find the best locations for their guns and to determine where the enemy was hiding.

In Germany, Mr. Yochem found another outlet for his talents.

"One day, Bob Hope asked us if any of us wanted to be in his USO show. I volunteered because I could sing. I had sung in the choir at Perry High. On the day of the show, Mr. Hope asked me if I was prepared. I told him I wouldn't be here if I wasn't prepared. He said, 'I just don't want you to make a fool of yourself.' Bob Hope was a good man, a gentleman, but he was very particular about his show."

Mr. Yochem remembers the show, which featured singer and actress Frances Langford, as a big success.

He also crossed paths with another iconic figure from World War II: Gen. George Patton, commander of the U.S. 3rd Army.

"I drove for General Patton for about six weeks. He was a hard man to get along with. He had a bull terrier. I think he cared more about that dog than he did about me," Mr. Yochem said.

Part of Mr. Yochem's duties were to feed, walk and pick up after the dog, who was named Willie, and who went everywhere with the general.

Following his discharge in December 1945, Mr. Yochem became a clerk typist for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He retired in 1982.

He also sang at veterans hospitals and at local theaters, including the Stanley and Fulton Downtown. He acted in musicals at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, and in1952 he appeared at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway in "New Faces" with George Peppard, Eartha Kitt and Robert Alda, the father of actor Alan Alda.

Mr. Yochem considered a career as an actor but was put off by being away from his family.

"I thought too much of my mom and dad," he said.

The long process to have his medals reissued involved a lot of letter writing and inquiries by the Department of Defense, which had to verify the validity of his claims.

"They investigated everything backwards and forwards before reissuing," he said.

Now that the medals have found their proper home again, Mr. Yochem feels a chapter in his life is closed, but the memories linger.

"We left a lot of good men buried over there," he said.
 
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