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Mt. Pleasant man tracks down late uncle's military honors

| Wednesday, May 21, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

It's a story of salutation 70 years in the making.

Just twice as a young child, Mt. Pleasant's Paul Baird Sr. said he recalled meeting his late uncle, U.S. Army Technical Sgt. Earl Huffman Jr., before Huffman embarked for his tour of duty in World War II.

“I was about 5 years old, and both times were at the home of my grandparents (Earl Sr. and Eva Huffman),” said Baird, 75. “I can still remember seeing him in uniform.”

Since that time, complete knowledge of what happened to Huffman after he entered the war had remained a mystery to both he and his family.

But Baird recently uncovered the circumstances of the service and the death of the man he knew as “Uncle June,” short Huffman's nickname Junior, who served with the U.S. Army's 9th Infantry Division, 39th Regiment.

“Until recently, I only had those few memories of him,” Baird said.

In 2010, Baird began working on a family tree featuring Huffman's legacy for his family's future use, he said.

Based on Huffman's obituary, Baird knew he had been awarded the Silver Star — the third-highest award for that branch of the Armed Services.

But he did not know why.

Online historian lends a hand

In his search for more specifics on his Uncle June's military service, Baird eventually utilized the Internet to reach out to a man half a world away — Yuri Beckers of Copenhagen, Denmark — who operates a website called 9thinfantrydivision.net.

Since 2002, Beckers, 36, has researched the Battle of Hurtgen Forest on the border of Germany and Belgium.

In 2005, he began to focus his research on the involvement of Huffman's division in that battle, he said.

“In my 12 years of research to this battle, I have obtained many official U.S. Army records via the National Archives, out-of-print and hard-to-find books and unit histories,” said Beckers, who is currently writing a book about the division's actions in the Hurtgen Forest between September 1944 and March 1945.

“I also collected documents and interviewed veterans and family members of 9th Infantry Division men. I was asked by Mr. Baird to find out more information about Sgt. Huffman's medal awards,” he said.

Eventually, Beckers located the general's order number for Huffman's Silver Star.

“These are numbers of documents that contain a citation and information about what actions occurred when that led to the awarding of that medal. I provided (Baird) that information,” he said.

The order specified that Huffman was indeed awarded the commendation on Oct. 15, 1944, during the Hurtgen battle.

It further stated that Huffman earned the honor for distinguishing himself “by gallantry in action and disregard for personal safety.”

“That battle was the longest fought on German grounds during World War II,” said Baird, adding that it lasted from Sept. 19, 1944, to Dec. 16, 1944.

“It was actually considered to be the longest single battle ever fought by the U.S. Army,” he said.

During the battle, American losses and casualties amounted to 33,000 soldiers, while the German total was 28,000.

“The importance of this struggle was that the Germans were using these grounds as a staging area for their Ardennes offensive, better known as the ‘Battle of the Bulge,'” Baird said.

Congressional aide probes case further

In late 2013, Baird contacted the office of U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, for aid in gathering more details about Uncle June's service.

Meg Vredenburgh, a congressional aide/case worker in Murphy's Greensburg office, conducted an investigation based on Baird's query with the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

Through her research, Vredenburgh learned that, along with the Silver Star, Huffman was entitled to receive the Bronze Star, the fourth-highest Army Award, for “exemplary performance of duty in active ground combat” as a private serving at the Utah Beach Landing on D-Day + Four, or June 10, 1944.

On Oct. 15, 1944, Huffman, then a private first class, was also entitled to receive the Combat Infantryman's Badge.

In addition, he was entitled to receive the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, a World War II Victory Medal and an Honorable Service Button of World War II, Vredenburgh said.

“I was glad to help,” she said. “Congressman Murphy will always do what he can to submit information to help veterans or family of veterans in their search for information about their loved ones who served in the military.”

In death, soldier earns Purple Heart

As Baird's mission to fully recognize Huffman's legacy waged forth, there was one last medal he believed his uncle should have been awarded — the Purple Heart.

“I questioned why he didn't get the Purple Heart, since I knew he was killed in action,” he said.

Through his own research, Baird recovered a copy of Huffman's final report of death, he said.

It explained that Huffman succombed to wounds received in action at age 22 in Germany on March 14, 1945.

“The date of his death, and the position of his unit, point to his being killed in action at or around the Battle of Remagen near the Remagen Bridge (spanning the Rhine River), which took place from March 7, 1945, to March 17, 1945,” Baird said. “After this battle was won, the first American soldiers were able to enter Germany via that bridge.”

Baird supplied Huffman's death report to Vredenburgh, who forwarded it to the Department of the Army's human resources command at Ft. Knox, Kent.

The Army posthumously awarded Huffman the Purple Heart, Baird said.

At the time of Huffman's death, he was buried at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium for roughly three years.

His body was eventually exhumed based on a request from his family, and it soon after was transported back home.

On Aug. 14, 1948, Earl and Eva Huffman laid to rest their oldest son at Mt. Joy Cemetery in Mt. Pleasant Township.

Daughter's signature seals the deal

In order to recover information from the government about Huffman's service, along with his medals, Baird had to obtain a signature from one of his uncle's next-of-kin, he said.

So he called on Huffman's daughter, June Ann (Huffman) Campbell of Connellsville, who never met her father because he began his tour of duty three months before her birth.

“My (cousin) Paul has worked on this for four years. He was very persistent. He called me about my signature, I told him OK. Two weeks went by, and he called again,” Campbell said with a slight laugh.

Uncle June's medals eventually were delivered to Murphy's office.

“A critical key was having that signature from (Campbell),” Vredenburgh said. “Mr. Baird had supplied almost all of the documentation, I submitted it all, and low and behold ... we got the medals.”

Soon after, Baird and his wife, Kathleen, framed all of Huffman's citations.

Baird recently presented them to Campbell as a tribute to the ultimate sacrifice made by the father she never met.

“When Paul showed that to me, I was so stunned,” Campbell said. “I'm just amazed at the information he was able to get. Neither my grandparents, nor anyone else, knew about all the awards my father earned.”

Military man's memory enlightens descendants

Baird admitted it became of utmost importance to him to preserve Huffman's memory for future generations of his family.

“His granddaughters and great-grandchildren will now have a little knowledge of this hero, who was only one of many that made that ultimate sacrifice for our freedom,” he said.

Among those descendants is Nicholas Chase Ranker, 23, Connellsville, who is Campbell's grandson and Huffman's great-grandson.

“When he came in and saw those medals, he said, ‘Man, where did those come from?'” Campbell said. “I said, ‘Honey, those belonged to your great-grandfather. He said ‘Oh my,' and he stood there and looked at them for such a long time.”

A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or apanian@tribweb.com.

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