102-year-old Cypress Cove resident receives Bronze Star after a 77-year wait
Veteran honored for thwarting tank attack in 1944
“I guess I never realized how much it meant to me,” said 102-year-old Elmer Blair after receiving his Bronze Star medal nearly eight decades after he led his army platoon safely away from an attack by a German tank during the Arno Line Italian campaign.
His 1944 act of bravery in battle had consequences for Elmer. His right leg was seriously injured in the confrontation that followed and later — after thwarting that German tank attack — he had to be carried away for medical care. The injury ended his World War II combat infantry days, but not his 38-year military/civilian career.
Seventy-seven years later, the memory of World War II returned for Elmer in a most memorable and honorable way when he opened his mail recently and saw his Bronze Star. For an individual known for his cheerful, humble mannerism, receipt of the award deeply moved him. The medal highlighted the importance of his actions: in combat he led with exceptional valor and saved the life of every single member of his platoon.
His quest for acknowledgement of his act of bravery began two years earlier. With the help of his daughter, Debby, and then local Congressman Francis Rooney, Elmer sought to receive the medal promised to him. Gaining the attention and recognition proved a laborious effort, explained Debby, who helped her father in collecting all needed service records and discharge papers. Their efforts were not without frustration and disappointment, leading at one time for Elmer to exclaim that he didn’t care if he ever received the medal.
But he did.
He spoke about the military’s omission to many of his friends living at Cypress Cove, the South Fort Myers continuing care retirement community he calls home.
Elmer, an active resident of Cypress Cove, said the urging of friends, family and others made him proceed with his quest.
“I am a very proud retired Army officer,” he stated in his letter seeking his long-awaited Bronze Star. “I was told at one time I would be awarded a Bronze Star for actions during combat, but it never happened.”
His never-give-up attitude most likely sprouted from his upbringing in the coal mining regions of West Virginia. There, at a young age, he joined his father working in “the mine.”
The work would be excellent training for his military combat. He vividly remembers his first terrifying coal car ride into the mine, pressed low into a coal car. The shaft was so narrow and low, that “you had to lay flat beneath the coal car’s rim.” It was tough, difficult confining work — one that his father did for 61 years.
But soon Elmer was called to duty as World War II raged. As a young infantry soldier, he moved up the ranks quickly. He was re-assigned to a position in northern Europe with the Army’s Transportation Corp. after recovering from his tank attack injuries.
When the war ended, Elmer returned home with no intentions of re-enlisting. But the Army had other ideas and offered an incentive package for him to remain with the Transportation Corp.
He obliged and for the next 16 years (he was now married), he and family would call nine different locations in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia home before retirement. Using the GI Bill to help fund his college education for a degree in health and physical education, opportunity for another “military” position came knocking. Elmer became the first civilian athletic director of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, a position he held for 10 years.
Elmer would add another 12 years, and eight moves, serving in Asia and Europe in recreation. For a time, he served as recreation director for all European military installations. Now a retired major, Elmer often reflects on his time of service.
And now with Bronze Star in hand, his smile shines even brighter.