WWII, Iraq veterans receive 'overdue' recognition, honors

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

Less than three months after Herbert S. Kindsfater traveled to the National World War II Memorial with the inaugural Big Sky Honor Flight, he experienced another life-changing event that hearkened to his service in World War II.

Kindsfater, 87, of Laurel, was flanked by his wife Betty and son Bruce, as U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., awarded him with several citations, including the prestigious Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal.

The Purple Heart, first awarded in February 1932, is awarded to members of the military either wounded or killed in action. The Bronze Star is awarded for bravery, acts of merit, or meritorious service.

“It’s very emotional,” Kindsfater said, his eyes welling with tears. “You feel like you’re not forgotten. Somebody’s still thinking of you. I feel wanted.”

Outside Tester’s downtown Billings’ office, Kindsfater was also presented with the Good Conduct Medal, Presidential Unit Citation, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three bronze service stars, World War II Victory Medal, Combat Infantry Badge First Award, Philippine Liberation Ribbon with one bronze service star and the Honorable Service Lapel Button.

“Herb, on behalf of all Montanans and all Americans, I stand to say ‘thank you’ for your service to this nation,” said Tester, the state’s only member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Kindsfater was born in Rocky Fort, Colo. At 17, he tried to join the Navy, but was rejected and told he could join the Army or work in the Butte silver mines. He chose the Army, serving as a machine gunner in Company H, 172nd Regiment, 43rd Infantry Division – the “Green Mountain Boys” of Vermont.

His unit served in the Pacific Theater, engaging in combat in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, where he suffered injuries from shrapnel. In the Philippines, Kindsfater and his fellow soldiers fought mile-by-mile to reach Manila and eventually seized the island of Luzon.

At Ipo Dam, he was severely wounded in both arms and spent months recuperating in two separate hospitals. He was discharged with a cast on his right arm, shredded by shrapnel. His left arm also was pelted with shrapnel. Upon discharge, he moved to Billings, married and worked for the railroad. As a newlywed, he battled malaria that he contracted in the war.

Never did he receive any of the medals he earned – until Thursday.

“These decorations are small tokens, but they are powerful symbols of true heroism, sacrifice, and dedication to service,” said Tester. “These medals are presented on behalf of a grateful nation.”

Added Kindsfater, “It’s been a wonderful year, just a wonderful year. For the most part of 70 years, we’ve been forgotten.”

Kindsfater was one of three Montana veterans, two living and one dead, who on Thursday received some of the most distinguished honors awarded to members of the military. Calling them “American heroes,” Tester said the recognition was overdue.

The men, representing two vastly different periods in the nation’s history, were honored for their service in World War II and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

After graduating high school in Darby, Nicholas Wells completed basic training at Fort Knox and trained at Camp Irwin, Calif. He became an Army scout assigned to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, 2-9 Cavalry Regiment. The young man arrived in Iraq in October 2005. He served in the North and Central zones near Baghdad, Mosul, Adwar and Tikrit.

While in the service, Wells, 26, of Billings, survived gunshots, 24 improvised explosive device blasts and a helicopter crash. He continues to be treated for injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and hearing loss that he suffered in the war.

Wells never received the medals he earned from the Army. That was rectified Thursday when Tester presented him with the Iraq Campaign Medal with two Bronze stars.

“I would like veterans of all foreign conflicts to be recognized,” said the humble Wells. “Everybody sacrificed no matter what you did. We all participated.”

William Schulze, who lived his final years in Billings, died last year. He was 95.

A Golden Glove boxing champion, Schulze was working for the Pacific Bridge Co. at Pearl Harbor as a welder when the United States came under attack on Dec. 7, 1941. He joined the Navy and put his skills to use in the 302nd Construction Battalion – known as the “Sea-Bees.”

Bill and his unit went from island to island across the Pacific building floating bridges from cargo ships to landing areas so supplies could reach American troops onshore. He supported U.S. troops in Guam, Saipan, New Guinea, the Philippines and other locations.

“No story of bravery – and especially not one from our Greatest Generation – should ever be forgotten,” Tester said.

For his service during World War II, Schulze’s widow received the American Campaign Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Sharp Shooter Rifle Ribbon, Navy Discharge Button, Honorable Service Lapel Pin and an additional bronze star to the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal.

“This is wonderful,” Betty said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Tester offered his apologies to the veterans for it taking so long, in some cases decades, to secure for them what was rightfully theirs.