Following one Purple Heart's trail: A military merit's long journey home after 70 years

Team uses detective skills to find family

DRY RIDGE, Ky. – The Purple Heart. It’s a symbol of heroic measures to preserve our freedom, no matter the cost. It’s a badge of military honor, distinction and merit, not to mention bravery.

But one gold-colored beauty, dangling from a purple sash, never found its way to the family of a Marine — a Marine who was wounded on July 27, 1944 on the island of Guam during the Pacific campaign of WWII.

Until now.

It took a team at The Kentucky State Police’s Post 6, including a high school student, to track down Pfc. First Class Herman A. Bowling’s family through many sources including social media and online ancestry sites. After several hours of researching over a span of months, they were finally able to honor Bowling’s family with the grandiose heart-shaped medal.

A Purple Heart’s Trail Home

One of the oldest military decorations in the U.S., it’s estimated that 1,076,245 Purple Hearts were awarded during WWII.

READ THE HISTORY OF THE PURPLE HEART

While Pfc. Bowling was being removed from the battlefield by medical corpsmen in 1944, one of them stepped on a land mine, killing Bowling and several of the corpsmen. For that and for his bravery, he was unknowingly honored with the Purple Heart.

It was that day that the Purple Heart began its long, unforeseen journey home, taking several decades and a few generations, before it found its way into the hands of the young Marine’s nephew, Gary Bowling in Grant County.

A Detour Through Grant County

While the Kentucky Purple Heart Trail doesn’t run through Grant County, one Purple Heart made its way there to find its final resting place.

KENTUCKY’S PURPLE HEART TRAIL

Det. Joey Johnson (ret.) of the KSP was the first to come across Pfc. Bowling’s Purple Heart when he found it during a search warrant raid. Shortly after bringing the medal into Kentucky State Police’s Post 6, he was transferred to another division before trying his hand at investigating its origin, according to Mindi Thompson, KSP intelligence analyst.

That’s when Det. Christopher Jaskowiak, who began his 20-year career with the KSP in January 1994 and was promoted to detective in February 2001, was introduced to the noble distinction.

Twelve years after beginning his tenure as a KSP detective, and just prior to his retirement, he was cleaning up old files and memories of cases solved. He was stunned to uncover a left-behind trinket in his filing cabinet.

It was the Purple Heart.

He immediately jumped into detective mode one last time. However, his only clue was the medal’s engraved name on the back: PFC Herman A. Bowling, USMC.

“I attempted to locate the owner of the medal through Internet searches and contacts I had with the military,” the Army veteran said, who understood and respected the importance of what he happened upon.

Military records gave no more than his mother’s information as next of kin and led Jaskowiak nowhere fast.

“A detective role played a part just by not giving up on finding out who the medal belonged to,” he said.

But Jaskowiak wouldn’t be the last investigator on this case.

With no luck in finding the Purple Heart’s rightful owner, nor family, in August 2013, the retiring detective, plopped the Purple Heart on Thompson’s desk.

It would stay on her desk, in plain view, for months to follow.

“I always wanted to see it and focus on it in my free time. I didn’t want to let it go,” Thompson, who came from a military family, said.

“My dad is a military vet; in my house we are very pro-military. We support vets and to see it not in the hands where it belongs was frustrating,” she said. “It was for someone who did something in a war and it needed to rest with someone who loved that person.”

And on her desk it lingered. Front and center. An unclaimed reminder, the hushed watchman to an untold story, would be the memento keeping the honor’s trail warm.

But, like Jaskowiak, her efforts to solve the mystery had little success… alone that is.

A few months had passed when Bethany West, a Highlands High School senior and budding detective herself, would begin her mentoring program internship with the KSP.

That would change everything.

While Thompson steered her toward initial resources West took on the project to ‘solve the case’ as her mission.

Using various online resources such as Ancestry.com, Facebook and Google, West began finding virtual breadcrumbs.

“I went through the profiling aspect when creating a family tree and learning who he was and where he was from,” West said.

Within a few days, she was then able to search family trees to narrow down her hunt, receiving guidance from the Pendleton County Historical Society.

“The fact that he died so young, with no wife or children, added difficulty to the search,” said West of the 20-year-old Marine, who she unearthed was originally from Demossville, Ky.

“The defining moment was when I saw his obit, when it described how he passed away… the way he was awarded… his family deserved to know who he was,” West said about finally coming upon the piece of history that ultimately lead her to his family.

“Many family members never met him. How rewarding it would be for his family to learn about him,” the now-18-year-old said she thought at the time.

Although he had six sisters and five brothers, most of them had already passed away, she said of making nearly 40 phone calls before snagging a solid lead in her search. This included tracking down a nursing home where his late brother resided, but had since closed its doors.

But that trail of crumbs eventually led her to his brother in Florida. While he too was deceased, his family steered her into the direction of his nephew, Gary in Grant County.

“Ironically, [he] lives only a few miles from Post 6,” West said.

It would take her several hours of detective work and a lot of dead-ends, but she said it was well worth the search to meet the family to whom this medal was meant for.

Together, West and Thompson called Gary to share their good news. But to their astonishment, he had no idea that his uncle had earned a Purple Heart, however wasn’t surprised.

“The whole process was an exciting and rewarding experience,” West, who just wrapped up her freshman year pursuing a criminal psychology degree at The University of Kentucky, said.

“It was really interesting to track down the elements of the story and help a family reunite with a piece of its history—it taught me to never give up.”

Family Honored 7 Decades Later

Pfc. Bowling’s nephew and his wife Barb were presented with the Purple Heart in May at Post 6. That’s when they met the team of investigators who never gave up and tracked him down to give him an honor that his uncle had earned so long ago.

“His uncle earned this medal by making the ultimate sacrifice for our country and we wanted to make sure it was returned to the family,” said Capt. Anthony Taulbee, commander of Post 6.

“You don’t know how important this is to us,” said Gary, whose father died four years ago at age 88.

“It would have meant a lot to him. He missed his brother. We thank you for all your efforts to get this back to us,” he said at the ceremony.

Pfc. Bowling was buried in a temporary grave on Guam before his remains were repatriated to the U.S. and interred in Gardnersville Cemetery in Pendleton County, Ky.

While he will never have the chance to have the heart-shaped golden medal proudly adorned to his left breast, the Purple Heart he gave his life for, will now serve as a memory to his family the brave battle he fought to preserve their freedom.

“The 4th of July is the day we celebrate our country's Independence from England following the Revolutionary War. It is a time to reflect on how a great county came to be,” said Jaskowiak. “[That] Marine paid the ultimate sacrifice with his life defending this great nation. I am forever indebted to him, and men and women just like him.”

Northern Kentucky Voice: Your Voice, Your Story is a periodic and ongoing series on WCPO.com about the people of Northern Kentucky making a difference in their community. If you would like to tell your story, or know someone who should, email Jessica Noll at Jessica.Noll@wcpo.com.

For more stories by Jessica Noll on issues impacting Northern Kentucky, visit http://www.wcpo.com/noll or follow her on Twitter @JessicaWCPO.

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