WEST SENECA, NY- The gifts Jim Steinmetz received for his 84th birthday moved him to tears. They are the medals he should've received 67 years ago for his service in WWII.
Countless numbers of America's war heroes came home after their service ended without receiving the medals they deserved, only to be tracked down decades later, mostly by family members. That's exactly what happened for Steinmetz Friday night.
The son of a WWI veteran, Steinmetz, of Collins, was persuaded by his twin brother to enlist in the Navy back in 1945.
"I didn't know what I was getting into, so I said, 'sure, we'll join the Navy.' So I got my dad's permission at 17. I was 17 in October and in November I went in the Navy," he said.
Jim was assigned to a brand new ship, the PC-822, with the job of patrolling the Atlantic Ocean for submarines. His brother Jack was on the USS Hazel, an older ship with the less glamorous job of moving netting in and out of the Panama Canal.
"For some reason he didn't like his duties. I said, 'well I've got a good ship.' He said, 'well, I'm going to try to get on it,'" Steinmetz recalled.
Despite Navy policy preventing family members from serving on the same ship, the Steinmetz twins fought to be together. But he now laughs about the way it turned out.
"They took me off of my ship and put me on his ship," he said.
Steinmetz admits he doesn't remember much about his two years of service at the naval station in Coco Solo, but when he saw one photo the memories came flooding back. It's a picture of the Steinmetz twins locking arms with another local Navy vet, Hoyt Holkum, and it was snapped the day the boys got their tattoos.
"Hoyt had his half done and it hurt so much he walked out."
But Steinmetz stayed for all of his and proudly shows it off today. It's a symbol of his dedication to the Navy, and now the medals are as well. At Kloc's Grove in West Seneca Friday night, Congressman Brian Higgins (D-Buffalo) presented him with the American Campaign Medal, the WWII Victory medal, the Honorable Service button, and lapel pin.
"It's appropriate for our nation to honor the extraordinary sacrifice and courage of our veterans," said Rep. Higgins.
He was also given a flag that flew over the capital, and his wife of 60 years, June, said that may have meant the most.
"I could tell by the way he looked at me that he was really pleased," said June. "He flies his flag every day."
He is a true hero to his four children and 12 grandchildren, and especially admired by one grandson, Kevin Steinmetz, who also defended our nation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"You do your job. You're not doing it for medals. You're not doing it for prestige. You're doing it because it's the right thing to do. That's the kind of person he is," said Steinmetz, a member of New York's Army National Guard, 27th Brigade.
Jack now lives in Florida, and he also didn't receive his medals. His family is now going through the process of applying for them to be awarded.