Purple Heart pinned on local World War II veteran Friday

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite
Joe Bartlett, center, holds his Purple Heart for the first time Friday, April 2, 2021, outside the Oklahoma Veterans Center in Ardmore. He was injured in June 1945 when Japanese kamikaze pilot attacked his Navy ship in the Pacific about two months before the end of World War II.

Joe Bartlett is one of the many Americans that bears the scars of U.S. military service. While he was the one that faced a kamikaze attack that seriously injured his legs, the veteran repeatedly thanked family, friends and veterans' advocates on the very first day he was awarded his Purple Heart.

Over 75 years after an attack on his U.S. Navy vessel in the Pacific theater of World War II, the longtime minister also thanked God for the events that led up to Friday morning. He said in the years following his service, he and other veterans found great comfort in faith and fellowship.

"I feel like I'm here by prayer today," Bartlett said. "I think many times of those that didn't make it back with me."

The 94-year-old Bartlett learned late last year he had been awarded the Purple Heart, a U.S. military decoration for service members wounded or killed in action, after over a year of behind-the-scenes work documenting his injury.

Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs Executive Director Joel Kintsel said it is not uncommon for some veterans who are eligible for the decoration to not actually receive it, especially those from Bartlett's generation.

"World War II was such a large war. Obviously things were going on all over the place and things happened to people that were overlooked at the time," Kintsel said.

More:World War II veteran to receive Purple Heart after 75 years

According to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, about 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded since the decoration was established in 1932. Over 1 million of them were awarded during WWII, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

With WWII veterans now over 90 years old, the pressure to find those who earned the decoration mounts every day considering no comprehensive list of those eligible for it exists.

"They're around us but they're leaving us quickly. It's important that we get these types of things done as fast as we can," Kintsel said.

Larry Van Schuyver is the chapter commander of Oklahoma's Military Order of the Purple Heart. The nationwide organization, made up exclusively of other Purple Heart recipients, offers support services to military members and their families.

The organization was created by Congress in 1932 to support wounded veterans. Among their roles today is to research and document qualifying injuries for eligible recipients to receive the decoration retroactively, and to keep it away from those simply stealing valor with tall tales.

"The biggest hurdle for the Purple Heart is to make sure it is awarded to someone that earned that honor. It's not an honor anybody wants, but if you get it you're kind of a little proud of it," Van Schuyver said.

Bartlett's family tried to fulfill documentation requirements about the injury but ran into roadblocks related to a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center, which housed millions of military records. Van Schuyver said the family reached out to his organization and they all set off for about 15-months of work to track down evidence of Bartlett's story.

Investigators found out Bartlett served alongside another sailor with the exact same name which made for extra work. Van Schuyver said hospital records from the Philippines not only matched Bartlett's account, but they even matched the sailor's scars.

His rank of electrician's mate third class also distinguished him from the other sailor who was not injured.

"It was a little hard to read his writing as being checked into the hospital, however after we got in to it we were able to — because his rank EM3 — we could prove it was real," Van Schuyver said.

Another former electrician's mate in the U.S. Navy is Sen. Frank Simpson who, along with Van Schuyver, pinned the Purple Heart on Bartlett on Friday. Simpson said the 75-year delay in honoring Bartlett is indicative of that generation's selflessness.

"Here is a man that knows he was wounded and should have got a Purple Heart, but his only job was serve our country and, when he got out, come home and worked and raised a family. He didn't even think about [the decoration]," Simpson said.

"I know sometimes it's late, but I think it's rewarding for them to know that they're not forgotten and their contribution is remembered."