FORT CARSON, Colo. -- John Krajeski says he is finally at peace.
"I think I sleep better at night, now," he said, chuckling. "I wanted at least this recognition. … It was something I needed to do before I went to my grave."
For years, Krajeski, 86, had been trying to receive the Silver Star and Bronze Star medals he had been promised 67 years earlier after performing heroic actions on the island of Okinawa, Japan.
His lieutenant wrote up the paperwork for the citation, but Krajeski stored it in a duffel bag with the rest of his Army paperwork. The bag remained in his mother's basement until 1980 when Krajeski found it while helping his mother move.
"I promised myself that I would follow up on that. … I didn't really pay attention on following up on it until (2006)," he said.
More than 60 years after the original citation was written, Krajeski began his quest to receive the medals, writing hundreds of letters and emails and making dozens of phone calls to members of Congress and officials within the Army.
"I wrote to all the senators, but they all said they couldn't help me," he said. "That hurt my feelings, badly."
Government and military officials said Krajeski's records burned in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.
Armed only with the citation from his duffel bag, Krajeski continued in his pursuit, finding help from an organization based in Washington, D.C.
"I wish I knew exactly what was pushing me," Krajeski said. "It was so important to me. I was going to stay with it until I couldn't breathe anymore. … I wanted at least this recognition."
In a formal ceremony, July 11, at the 4th Infantry Division headquarters, Krajeski was pinned with the honors by Maj. Gen. Joseph Anderson, commanding general, 4th Inf. Div. and Fort Carson.
"It's guys like (Krajeski), that's why we are the greatest country," Anderson said during the ceremony. "Most of our heroes who earn these awards say, 'I was just doing my job,' and I know he would say the same thing. … Today is about recognizing bravery and courage."
Dressed in his Eisenhower wool uniform, Krajeski took the stage. When the attention to orders was called, Krajeski stood as straight and tall as he could. His hands remained open, unable to close into fists due to myasthenia gravis -- a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease that causes debilitating muscle weakness.
As Anderson clipped the medals to his lapel, Krajeski's face filled with emotion."It's such a wonderful honor," he said.
Krajeski said he experienced three miracles throughout his time as a private with the 17th Infantry Regiment, 7th Inf. Div.
The first came after he fell into the ocean trying to navigate across the boats after landing at Okinawa.
"I had all my combat items on plus all kinds of heavy things like throwing grenades," he said.As he started to sink, Krajeski said he grabbed hold of a piece of netting that hung 15 feet below the boat deck.
"I was able to grab those nettings and come crawling up like a squirrel or a monkey and I just got out before those boats crashed back together again."
Another miracle occurred after a bomb landed in his foxhole.
"It hit 20 inches in front of me," he said. "I heard it come bump, bump, bump down into my hole, but it didn't explode. … It was a dud."
The third miracle came June 10, 1945, two weeks after Krajeski celebrated his 19th birthday.
After months of intense fighting on Okinawa, Soldiers knew the key to capturing the island rested with the destroying of a single cave from which Japanese soldiers fought.
American troops made repeated attempts to claim the territory, but were forced to retreat four days in a row to their morning foxholes, Krajeski said.
"They asked for someone to volunteer to blow up that cave and I hesitated a long time, but no one would help, so I got a friend of mine from another company and we volunteered to blow up that cave."
Armed with their weapons and 100 pounds of TNT, Krajeski and another Soldier made their way across the hills to the bottom of an escarpment below the mouth of the cave.
"We had about an hour and a half or two hours of steady walking and being careful, from where our people were, to get to this escarpment," he said. "We kept whispering what we got to do and what we're going to do. When we finally got there, we made an agreement. We are not going to make any mistakes; we're not going to do anything too fast; we're not gonna try and be heroes; we're going to be careful."
As the two Soldiers made their way up the escarpment, shattered coral on the hillside cut into their hands and feet.
"We bled all the way to the top," Krajeski said.
Just below the top of the escarpment, Krajeski and his companion waited.
"We must have been there one to two hours, and what we would whisper to each other was 'Don't do any noise. Don't sneeze; don't do anything. If you have to go potty, you go in your pants.'
"It was so tense, you just could not function. You dare not make one sound or they would be down on you. … Over the hour, hour-and-a-half period that we were huddled there, we didn't say very much. We actually touched once in a while to give ourselves a little feeling that we're not alone."
As the Japanese continued to mill above them near the entrance to the cave, Krajeski's third miracle occurred.
"We had light flares from the boats off in the sea. They shut them off for (the mission)," he said. "About three or four hours up on that escarpment, waiting for those Japanese to go to bed, the good lord or a drunken sailor pushed a button, and a night flare came up immediately over the top of us. It couldn't have been placed better."
Krajeski said the Japanese rushed into the cave, fearing an attack. Krajeski and the other Soldier rushed up the hillside, heaving their TNT into the cave."When that bomb goes off -- 50-100 pounds of TNT -- it was a horrendous blow," he said. "It blew those big rocks up in the air, and we heard them coming down. If one had hit us on the head we wouldn't be here today. … It was something to remember. It's something that sticks with you."
The two Soldiers ran back to the beach where they were greeted by their comrades.
"My lieutenant, I don't think he expected to see me come back," Krajeski said. "He wrote the (citation) up the next day."
Because they were able to blow up the cave, Krajeski said U.S. troops pushed past the Japanese and eventually overtook the island.
"That was the last major fight that we had to get land to get the Japanese back. It was very important," he said. "After we broke through on that, it only took us a month of much easier fighting the rest of the way to the end of the island."
As he's aged, names of the men he served with elude Krajeski.
He can't remember the name of the Soldier who stood by his side throughout the mission to the cave.
"I called him 'Shorty' instead of his real name," he said. "For some reason his name just drifted away from me over the years."
Although he doesn't recall the Soldier's name, Krajeski remembers his demeanor and commitment to the mission.
"He was the kind of guy that didn't panic when we got up in that terrible land," he said. "We had to be quiet and had to sit there and wait for the Japanese to settle in. He didn't spook too badly. Some kids would have really fallen apart like that."
After the war, Krajeski returned home to Nebraska. He left the Army as a master sergeant, enrolled in the journalism program at the University of Nebraska, and reunited with his childhood friend, Darlene Mecham.
"I knew where her apartment was, and I went to knock on her door," Krajeski said. "Instead of (a) big hug or something she stood there. I said, 'Lady, could you spare a crust of dry bread for an old Soldier?' And she closed the door. I stood there a moment. … She came back and opened the door and handed me a dry crust of bread. It only took us six months after that."
John and Darlene Krajeski married in 1948. For three years they ran a newspaper in Nebraska, before heading to Colorado to stake claim on soil John Krajeski said was rich with uranium. But John Krajeski's myasthenia gravis took hold and he couldn't work due to his condition.
Darlene Krajeski worked as a nurse while her husband stayed home and raised their children.
Despite his heroics, John Krajeski rarely discussed the war.
"He never mentioned this for years," Darlene Krajeski said. "Once in a while he would bring up something that would happen in the service, but he never would talk about it."
It wasn't until 2006 that John Krajeski said he felt compelled to receive the medals he'd earned.
"Ordinarily, a 19-year-old boy and another 19-year-old boy, we shouldn't have been there. It was ridiculous and anybody who had experience wouldn't even consider going up there at night to do that," he said. "The Silver Star … it represents that the particular person that gets the star has done something above and beyond the call of duty.
"Now that I have it, I feel honored and at peace."