National

65 years later, World War II widow receives soldier's medals

Coarsegold, Calif., residents Wes and Anna Heinrichs receive medals earned by Anna's first husband, Roy John Spencer, at a presentation of World War II medals by Army Col. Timothy McGuire on the Speaker's Balcony of the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday, September 14, 2010. (Michael Doyle/MCT)
Coarsegold, Calif., residents Wes and Anna Heinrichs receive medals earned by Anna's first husband, Roy John Spencer, at a presentation of World War II medals by Army Col. Timothy McGuire on the Speaker's Balcony of the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday, September 14, 2010. (Michael Doyle/MCT) Michael Doyle / MCT

WASHINGTON — Roy John Spencer died when his bazooka blew up. He left behind a teenage bride and some unfinished business.

Some 65 years after Spencer's death, Anna Heinrichs of Coarsegold, Calif., reclaimed a wartime debt Tuesday. With some congressional help, the retired educator secured the medals for which her first husband paid dearly.

"I just can't fathom it," Heinrichs said Tuesday. "It's almost like it isn't real, after so many years."

Accompanied by family members — including her second husband, World War II Marine veteran Wes Heinrichs — Anna received her due Tuesday morning on the Speaker's Balcony of the U.S. Capitol. A combat-proven Army officer presented her with a Silver Star, a Purple Heart and other medals that Spencer earned long ago.

"I've got chills going down my spine right now," said the soldier, Army Col. Timothy McGuire. "We are so proud, our generation, of the sacrifices you all have made."

A staffer for Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., helped Anna Heinrichs track down the missing medals through the National Personnel Records Center. This is standard-practice constituent service, though made more pressing as World War II veterans fade away.

Anna Heinrichs is now 83. Wes Heinrichs is 86.

He used a motorized scooter Monday to navigate around the World War II Memorial. He stopped to talk to a stranger who was likewise in a wheelchair: Wes Heinrichs wearing a red Marine Corps hat, the stranger a Seabees cap.

Wes Heinrichs' grip is strong, his voice clear. His wife, who joined him in adopting four daughters, is vivacious. She hugs people she's just met. The Heinrichses encountered an Air Force pilot Monday, a perfect stranger, and invited him to the medal ceremony Tuesday. He showed up.

The trip itself came off like a dream.

One daughter, Marcia Heinrichs Sorini, had learned of a group called Honor Flight Network that brings World War II veterans to Washington. For extra help, she turned to a cousin, Colorado businessman George Heinrichs, who provided a corporate jet to whisk the family stylishly into Washington.

"I thought, 'I can't wait,' " Marcia said. "I have to do this now."

A certain symmetry ennobled the medal ceremony itself.

McGuire previously had commanded a brigade combat team in the 82nd Airborne Division. Spencer, when he died, was a member of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the original 82nd Airborne.

Spencer was 26 at the time, a private. On Jan. 12, 1945, the Colorado native was advancing with his company through the woods outside Flamizoulle, Belgium. Shrapnel ripped his bazooka, rendering its use potentially suicidal. Nonetheless, his fellow soldiers reported, when German tanks appeared, Spencer fired.

The bazooka exploded, killing Spencer and his teammate.

His wife was kept in the dark. Married at 16, she was working in a Colorado munitions factory while her husband was overseas. She wrote him. After a time, he didn't write back.

"I started getting these letters returned, which gave me the idea something was wrong," she said.

She finally learned of her husband's death several weeks later from her sister, who'd been notified. Roughly a year later, she met Wesley Heinrichs for the second time.

Their first meeting was when she was about 12. She was at a rodeo, a lively gal. She made such an impression that Heinrichs said he kept thinking about her through the battles of Saipan and Tinian.

"I didn't remember him," Anna Heinrichs said, "but he remembered me."

The memories helped. Wes Heinrichs operated the amphibious trucks called DUKWs, which ferried guns and ammo onto the islands and then ferried wounded men out. The stench of the dead and the diesel smoke, he said, made diesel fumes unendurable to him for many years.

McGuire, the Army colonel, leaned over Tuesday to shake Wes Heinrichs' hand when the medal ceremony was over. McGuire lowered his voice and conveyed something intimate to Anna Heinrichs. Behind them, in the distance, rose the World War II Memorial.

"Semper fi," McGuire told Wes Heinrichs, his voice raised once more. "Hooah."

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