Purple Heart found in yard sale revives soldier’s story

mquillin@newsobserver.comAugust 5, 2013 

  • Purple Hearts

    For more information on Purple Hearts Reunited, the nonprofit that helps return lost or stolen medals to their rightful owners, go to www.purpleheartsreunited.org.

    To learn about the Purple Heart medal, go to www.purpleheart.org.

— In finding a forgotten medal from a largely forgotten war, a Moore County woman has helped bring memories of one lost soldier back to life.

Kimberly Paller didn’t know what she had in the box of books she picked up at a Pinehurst yard sale one morning last fall. A methodical yard-sale shopper who hits 10 to 15 sales on a Saturday, she looks for things she can resell on Ebay, favoring kitsch from the 1960s and 1970s.

At $20, the box of books was a splurge, but Paller brought it home to search for anything that might start an online bidding war. Inside, she came across a small case that held what she thought must be military paraphernalia, a not unusual find in Moore County, home to many retired military officers.

Paller’s husband, Keith, who served in the Army, recognized the Purple Heart. Not sure what to do with it, Paller put the case back in the box and stored it in the garage.

This spring, she pulled it all out again. One by one she researched the books; none were valuable. She looked up the Purple Heart and learned that while many have been given for combat injuries, only those awarded posthumously to soldiers killed in action are engraved with the soldier’s name.

She flipped this one over and saw the inscription: “For military merit. Henry A. Schenk.”

“I couldn’t sell it,” Paller said.

But a week earlier she had found a collection of old family photos among her yard sale haul. Thinking they had been inadvertently separated from the family they portrayed, she found a name on one and got a phone listing from the Internet. When she called, the man who answered cursed at Paller, said he didn’t want the photos and hung up.

Maybe nobody wanted this Purple Heart, either.

Still, Paller felt she had to search. Her first hit was a query from actor-author James McEachin in Hollywood. He had been looking for anyone who knew Lt. Henry Schenk, too, or Schenk’s family. Paller couldn’t find a number for McEachin, but found his page on Facebook and sent him a message.

Her phone rang 15 minutes later.

“I’ve been looking for this man’s family for 60 years,” said McEachin, who volunteered for the Army at age 17, served with occupying forces in post-World War II Japan, got out and then re-enlisted to fight in Korea.

From an immigrant family

On his second enlistment, McEachin got his wish to serve in the infantry. He was assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division, Company K, 3rd Battalion.

Henry “Hank” Schenk was a first lieutenant in the same company, though because of the distance between their ranks, McEachin didn’t know him.

Schenk came from an immigrant family; born in Austria, he came to the United States with his older brother, Peter, and their parents in 1932. The family settled in New York.

Henry Schenk followed his brother to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and was studying economics when he was drafted in 1943 to fight in World War II.

He returned safely in 1945, married, finished school with an ROTC commission and joined the Army National Guard. In 1951 or 1952, he was summoned to active duty in Korea.

On Aug. 14, 1952, members of his regiment on a prisoner-taking mission were ambushed and suffered heavy casualties. Chinese forces stripped the body of one of the soldiers and laid it on a hillside where American forces could see it.

That night, Schenk volunteered to take a handful of men to retrieve the body. He picked James McEachin to go in front.

“It was a terribly, terribly pitch-black night, and we were deep in enemy territory,” McEachin recalls, when they too got ambushed, in the valley below where the body lay.

“They ripped the living daylights out of us.”

Soldiers fell quickly. McEachin was hit in the leg and soon he could see only one man still firing.

Only 2 come out alive

“It was Schenk. He was firing his weapon, and screaming and cussing at the enemy,” trying to draw fire so he could see where to shoot back.

“He was the bravest man I’ve ever seen, or ever will see.”

Then Schenk got hit, McEachin says. There was an explosion, and the next thing McEachin remembers is waking up in a creek just before daybreak. He reached down to find his abdomen full of holes.

He would have died there, he figures, but another soldier who told McEachin he had survived the assault by running away helped get him back behind the line of UN forces where he could be treated for his wounds.

They were the only two men to return alive from the mission.

Unable to retrieve Lt. Schenk’s body, the Army initially listed him as missing. He was presumed dead on Dec. 31, 1953.

The Army would have sent the Purple Heart with his name on it to Schenk’s family. At some point, it was added to the medals and honors his brother, Air Force Col. Peter Schenk, amassed in his 39-year military career and brought with him when he retired to Pinehurst in the 1980s.

‘Missed him terribly’

James McEachin never found Peter Schenk to tell him of his brother’s bravery – and his fate – because McEachin had the wrong spelling of the family’s last name.

Andrea Schenk Flagg, Peter’s daughter, said her father and grandmother spoke only occasionally about Henry, because they never knew for certain what happened to him: Had he died in the firefight? Been captured? Tortured?

“That kind of thing doesn’t leave a family,” said Flagg, who also lives in Pinehurst. “It created a feeling of sadness in the family every time it was brought up. There were just the two of them, my dad and Hank. My father was warm and an extrovert, but Hank was really bubbly and fun and adventurous and had a lot of life in him. I know my father missed him terribly.”

Peter Schenk died in 2002, and last year, when her mother moved in with her, Flagg and other family members sorted through the couple’s things, saving the most important and putting the rest in tag sales.

The military memorabilia was supposed to have gone in one box and been placed in storage, Flagg said. She didn’t know her parents had her uncle’s Purple Heart medal, and was unaware it had landed in a box of books apart from the other items.

Flagg learned about the medal – and her uncle’s heroic last moments – from Capt. Zacharia Fike, a full-time Vermont National Guardsman who recently launched a nonprofit organization called Purple Hearts Reunited. Fike is a collector, and his mother gave him an engraved Purple Heart she found in an antiques shop in 2009.

Fike earned a Purple Heart himself during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2010. Rather than keep another man’s medal, he tracked down the soldier’s family and returned it.

‘Return ceremonies’

Now, people send him two or three Purple Hearts a week, found at yard sales, in landfills and junked cars, in the hopes he can put them back into the hands of the soldiers’ families.

He has spent thousands of hours doing the necessary research and his own money to frame the Purple Hearts with copies of all the other service medals each soldier received, and present them to the families in what he calls “return ceremonies” all over the country.

Fike says the events bring families together around the story of one of their own they may never have had a chance to know.

“This was one of the hardest cases I’ve worked on,” Fike said. It took him 63 days to track down a relative – Andrea Flagg – and tell her about the Henry Schenk’s found medal.

Paller meets McEachin

Last month, Kimberly Paller met McEachin at a veterans’ event in Alabama and gave him Schenk’s medal. McEachin will give it to Fike to have it framed in time for a return ceremony this fall.

Flagg said the family is still discussing what to do with the medal, but they like the idea of giving it to a military museum in Washington.

“This is the kind of thing that happens to military paraphernalia. It gets dispersed when it’s in private hands,” said Flagg, who was born 10 years after her uncle died in Korea. “If it’s in a museum, it stays there, and the story is preserved a lot longer and more securely than any one of us in the family could preserve it.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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