VA Palo Alto Health Care System
VA Staff Pursue Forgotten Purple Heart for WW2 Vet
On first meet, you would think Thomas Bambino never had any problems in his life. The truth is while living a modest and happy life, Bambino has dealt with his wounds from an injury he received during WW2.
At 93 years old, the walker in his hands and no-slip socks are no deterrent for this Army Veteran. He smiles and jokes as he makes his way down the hall of the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, where his brother and staff are waiting for him in one of the family rooms to present a framed letter addressed to Bambino from U.S. Senator Bob Dole.
The letter acknowledges his “extraordinary acts of bravery” as well as him being “deserving of a Purple Heart.” The only problem is, he never received his Purple Heart.
Born in New York, Bambino graduated high school and decided to join the U.S. Army in 1943. He went to bomb disposal school in Maryland and earned the title of Bomb Salvage Technician. He was deployed shortly after to Europe during the invasion of German-occupied France.
As the war closed in on Germany, he was clearing mine fields with a platoon of the 233rd Ordnance Bomb Disposal unit outside the city of Münster when he was caught in an explosion along with two other soldiers.
His legs were severely injured and he was immediately hospitalized in Germany. Upon being stabilized, he returned back to the United States.
Even in such a painful situation, he kept his spirits up on the flight home. A reporter from American Legion Magazine in 1946 noted he was “able to move his arms and hands and mouth and eyes, but liked being fed by someone as pretty as Mary Sue,” an interaction captured in the article titled,” And Suddenly You’re Home.”
Bambino received treatment at the U.S. Army Tilton General Hospital in New Jersey. After multiple surgeries, he was able to walk with crutches. He continued outpatient therapy at the Bronx VA but he was never going to walk the same again.
He was medically discharged from the Army as a Private First Class, earning three Bronze Stars, a Victory Ribbon, a Good Conduct Ribbon, a European African Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon, and an American Theater Ribbon.
However, the most important medal that underscored his sacrifice to our country, the Purple Heart medal, was never formally awarded or entered into his record. It is still unclear why.
The Lost Files
The Purple Heart is the oldest military award, originally introduced by General George Washington in 1782. After 150 years of no awards given, it was reintroduced in 1932, on the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth, by Executive Order of the President of the United States.
Despite the high regard for this award, there is still no comprehensive list of recipients and many clerical errors have left Veterans deserving of the award empty handed.
More focused on transitioning back to civilian life, Bambino never sought the award after being discharged. By the time he got the motivation and time to pursue his Purple Heart, there was a massive fire in 1973 at the Military Personnel Records Center in Overland, Missouri. Approximately 16-18 million official military records were lost as a result. He thought it to be a lost cause.
Little did he know, hope would come in the form of two VA employees who were persistent in keeping his story alive.
The Nurse and The Social Worker
Registered Nurse Janet Peterson was working in the emergency department at VA Palo Alto Health Care System when she became acquainted with Bambino, who was 84-years old at the time. Peterson knew there were not many WWII Veterans left in America and over the course of 10 years, she came to see him as a friend.
“During one of his stays, he told me that one of his biggest regrets was he had never gotten his Purple Heart,” said Peterson.
She brought in social worker Susan Harrison, who also was touched by his story. They recognized his health was only on the decline and decided to help him by reaching out to various groups to see what could be done.
They spoke with Veteran Service Organizations as well as “7 On Your Side,” the local news investigation team. They were referred to Swords to Plowshares who continues to help with legal counsel on the issue.
With the investigation of his records, they found a lot of information, including many of his military service records that were partially burned in a fire, VA records dating back to 1949, and one of the keys to the whole situation: his discharge record. But there is still work to be done.
By coincidence, Peterson happened to be having dinner with long-time friend, Carolyn Bechtel. The conversation brought up discussion of her passion at work, to which Peterson replied, “World War II Vets, I love them.”
She mentioned working on a project to help a Veteran who had not yet received his Purple Heart. Bechtel was ready to help and said she would like to mention this situation to a good friend, Senator Bob Dole. With Bambino’s permission, Bechtel took the story to Senator Dole, who promptly sent a letter of acknowledgement and appreciation.
During the presentation of the letter, Bambino asked Harrison to read the letter aloud. She became emotional in reading Senator Dole’s words. The letter is the first of any official recognition of his deserving of a Purple Heart in over 70 years.
After the ceremony, staff lined up to shake his hand and thank him for his service. A few people stuck around as he waited for Harrison to return for his recurring family meeting. He began to tell stories about his time with the 233rd Bomb Disposal Platoon, even some his brother admitted that he had never heard.
“I’m just lucky,” Bambino says, as he reminisced about the first casualty in his unit, an 18-year-old soldier. “It’s all due to service. That’s just what we had to do for our country.”