A day for remembrance:
Medal winners observe Purple Heart Day

By Corrine Durdock
East Penn Press staff

In a secluded corner of the northeast corner of West Park in Allentown, surrounded by memorials honoring veterans of this nation's military conflicts, members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Lehigh Valley Chapter 190, gathered Aug. 7 to observe Purple Heart Day.

These men who share a common bond, wounded in action in defense of their country, came together to honor their fellow comrades who died in action or who passed on during the past year.

In a solemn ceremony, the bell tolled six times, the gunfire exploded in the air and prayers were offered for those no longer present but who remain in everyone's thoughts.

The event commemorated the creation of the military decoration by General George Washington on Aug. 7, 1782. At that time, it was the nation's sole decoration and the highest military award of the land. Washington's original Badge of Military Merit consisted of the "figure of a heart" in purple cloth or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding. It was awarded to three soldiers, Sgts. Elijah Churchill, William Brown and Daniel Bissell, the only recipients of the award during the Revolutionary War. Churchill and Brown received the award May 3, 1783 and Bissell received his on June 10, 1783.

Although the crowd was sparse for the ceremony, the event was no less symbolic. Each veteran walked proudly for having served his country. And each had his own story to tell.

Merritt Pearson of Cetronia, who served in the U.S. Army 45th Infantry Division during the Korean conflict, said he was wounded 10 days before Armistice. That one night, 29 soldiers in his unit were killed and 70 wounded.

Chapter #150 Commander Ernest "Whitey" Eschbach of Salisbury, a former Emmaus resident who lived there when he served during World War II, said he was the only member of Chapter #190 who was wounded in the Pacific. Eschbach was an army supply sergeant with the 37th Division, 148th Battalion, and saw combat in Guadalcanal, the Fiji Islands and other Pacific battles.

The ceremony had a different meaning for Bill Follweiler of Parkland and his sister, Ruth Palmisano of Allentown, who said this year was the first time they had heard of the service.

"We're attending in the memory of our brother, Donald R. Follweiler, who was killed in action Nov. 12 during World War II," they said.

Palmisano said, "We never stop grieving for Donald."

Bill said Don was his youngest brother, only 21 years old when he was killed. He was a radioman and gunner flying in a Curtis helldriver off the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill. Bill, also in the service at the time, heard of Don's death some weeks later on New Year's Eve. The Follweilers also had a brother, John, serving in the signal corps at the same time.

Another veteran who had other brothers serving at the same time as he did was Edward C. Fritchman of Macungie.

"They stole my story," he said, referring to the movie, "Saving Private Ryan." His brother, Donald P., was killed two days after the war was over and the army department tried to get in touch with Edward who, at the time, was displaced from his unit.

All four of his brothers were in the service, said Fritchman. He joined as a 19-year-old in the first 19-year-old draft.

In the U.S. Army Amphibious Engineering Corps, he fought in the Salerno Anzio and Southern France invasions. He remembers writing during the Anzio invasion, 'I don't think I'll ever see Allentown again.'

Fritchman recalled the events leading to his wounding: "We had secured our duty and were watching the goings-on at the Bay when a Medic came up and asked where we were from. That was the biggest mistake of my life. I answered, 'the 540th Engineers.'

He commandeered Fritchfield and his buddies to help with retrieval of wounded comrades in a minefield.

"As we walked in line, somebody stepped over the tape and set off a German 'Bouncing S' mine," he said. Fritchfield received puncture wounds from the shrapnel; his buddy was killed. Some of the mine particles were imbedded too deep to be removed, he said. He's been hospitalized recently for problems with his spine caused by still-imbedded particles.

When he was released from the hospital, he couldn't get back to his outfit for four months and spent that period in Marseilles, France, sleeping outdoors, under trailers, with others who were also trying to get back to their units. Hence, the reason he could not be located to be informed of his brother's death.

No more American soldiers received the Badge of Military Merit after the three awarded during the Revolutionary War until Jan. 7, 1931, when General Douglas MacArthur, who wanted to have new medals issued to commemorate the bicentennial of Washington's birth, reopened the draft of a congressional bill written earlier by Army Chief of Staff General Charles P. Summerall. The war department announced the newly-designed award, Feb. 22, 1932. After the award was reinstated, recipients of a Meritorious Service Citation Certificate during World War I, along with other eligible soldiers, could exchange their award for the Purple Heart.

Gen. MacArthur said the award "is unique; it is the only decoration which is completely intrinsic in that it does not depend upon approval or favor by anyone. Enemy action, alone, determines if it is a true badge of courage and every breast that wears it can beat with pride."

The Lehigh Valley Chapter #190 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart meets the second Sunday of every month at 1:30 p.m. at Gross Towers in Allentown and welcomes new members. For information, call Eschbach, 610-434-1314.