More than 70 years after being wounded in one of the deadliest battles of World War II, Cecil Stephens was honored Friday with the Purple Heart.
The 90-year-old Merced man's service was recognized by the Merced Veterans of Foreign Wars, the county Board of Supervisors, and representatives from the offices of Assemblyman Adam Gray and Rep. Jim Costa, among others, while he was surrounded by family and friends at the Hampshire retirement community.
It was an honor long overdue.
Cecil Stephens was injured in the Battle of Okinawa during WWII on May 14, 1945
Born in Manchester, Tenn., in 1925, Stephens moved to Merced in the 1930s.
He was just 19 when he joined the 1st Marine Division in Japan as a private first class in 1944. The next year, he found himself in the Battle of Okinawa in the Ryukyu Islands, where the young Stephens manned a Browning automatic rifle and, on May 14, 1945, was wounded. "I was the one they were after all the time," he joked.
Even now, he said, the shrapnel remains in his leg.
The three-month Battle of Okinawa was one of the fiercest of the war. Of the 180,000 U.S. servicemen sent to Okinawa, more than 12,500 were killed, and about 38,000 were missing or wounded, according to the Marine Corps Association and Foundation. The Japanese military lost at least 70,000, and anywhere from 40,000 to 150,000 Okinawans are believed to have perished during the battle.
After the war, Stephens returned to Merced and worked as a county mechanic for 36 years before taking various part-time jobs in local eateries.
Stephens didn't talk much about his time at war, according to his family. He saw a lot of people die, and his memories were the sort of thing people try to forget.
Stephens didn't give much thought to being recognized for his injury, not until his niece and nephew, Joan Bippus of Sacramento and Terry Prost of Indianapolis, began looking into it. The two compiled Stephens' military personnel records and researched the Purple Heart, confirming that his experience at Okinawa made him eligible for the honor.
"It was some of the fiercest fighting against the Japanese during the whole war," Prost said of the battle during a phone interview. "It bothered me that somebody who survived that (battle) never officially got his medal."
The Purple Heart is one of the most recognized and respected medals awarded to members of the U.S. armed forces, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. As one of the nation's oldest military awards, the significance of the so-called Badge of Military Merit has evolved to recognize service members wounded by an enemy in combat.
When the honor finally came for Stephens in December, it arrived in a most unceremonious way: It was delivered by mail, the package simply left on his doorstep.
Debra Yerger, who is manager at the Hampshire, where Stephens has lived for the last seven years, decided the World War II veteran deserved more.
"Anyone who is deserving of a Purple Heart deserved better treatment than that," she said. "He's more deserving than a package left on his doorstep."
So, Yerger and other staffers collaborated with VFW Post 4327 to organize a proper ceremony.
On Friday, a crowd of dignitaries and loved ones were on hand to pay tribute for the sacrifice of long ago.
"I wasn't expecting this," Stephens said. "I knew there would be a small presentation. It sewed up to be a big one."
Prost, who served in the Navy, said he would encourage family members of all veterans, especially those who served in WWII, to look into veterans' service to determine if they are eligible for any awards.
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, fewer than 700,000 are believed to survive today, according to The National WWII Museum. It's estimated that 430 of these members of the Greatest Generation die each day.
Prost said he was glad to see his uncle finally be honored.
"It's a recognition of his service to his country," Prost said. "He put his life on the line for all of us."