In 1985, a woman shopping an antique store in Missouri picked up a box of vintage picture frames.
She got something unexpected along with her purchase — at the bottom of the box was a Purple Heart, the medal given to those wounded or killed while serving with the U.S. armed forces.
The medal was engraved with the name of Pete Cole. On Wednesday, the Purple Heart was returned to Cole’s family, at the end of a long and roundabout tale. The exchange was marked with a gathering at the graveside of Cole, a Huntington native who earned his Purple Heart from injuries sustained during the Battle of the Bulge during World War II in December 1944.
“It just needed to be found and returned to whoever would have it now. It needs to stay in the family,” said Don Crigger of St. Joseph, Missouri, who played an instrumental role in tracking down the man who’d earned the medal.
In a ceremony at Cunningham Memorial Park in St. Albans, members of Cole’s family gathered to mark the reunion of the medal and the man whose name it bore.
The woman who found the medal had for years tried to find to whom it might belong, thinking it might be a Missouri man’s medal, said Crigger.
“They owned a funeral home in Savannah, Missouri, and for several years anytime anybody would come in they’d ask if they knew ‘Pete Cole,’” he said.
Last year, after a cancer diagnosis, the woman asked if Crigger, a friend, might take on the task of seeking the medal’s owner. A Marine who saw combat in Vietnam, Crigger agreed to see if he could help reunite a fellow soldier with the medal he’d earned in battle.
Crigger still doesn’t know how the medal got to that Missouri antique store. “Nobody knows how it got there,” he said.
But he was able to track Cole’s military service number, and learned that Cole had been born in Huntington on July 13, 1922.
After finding his enlistment papers, Crigger found that Cole had enlisted at age 20 in the U.S. Army on Oct 10, 1942, in Huntington, serving as an infantryman in the U.S. Army in various theaters of war.
Then, he found the most essential information of all — remaining family members.
Crigger reached out to the nonprofit group Purple Hearts Reunited, which returns lost or stolen military medals of valor to veterans or their families in order to honor their sacrifice to the nation. That helped lead him to Maxine Cole of Dunbar, Pete Cole’s sister-in-law.
Finding one family member opened up other doors. Crigger was able to reach Cole’s daughter, Tish Boost, who lives in northern Michigan and came to West Virginia for Wednesday’s ceremony.
“I’m like, ‘What?!’ It was a shock,” said Boost, of learning that her father’s Purple Heart medal had been found in Missouri.
Boost recalled that her father’s war injury had resulted in a metal rod being placed in his leg, though she did not know more than that about how he’d sustained the injury. She recalled a time they went fishing together when she was a girl.
“He said ‘It’s cold out!’ And I’d tell him, ‘No, it’s not that cold.’ He said, ‘Well, that metal in my leg makes it colder.”
Boost said her father didn’t get his medal originally because his name was misspelled. His name was Pete Irvin Cole, but the medal was inscribed to Pete E. Cole.
Also, the Purple Heart’s return was made more complex because a difficult divorce between Boost’s parents, when she was 10, led to decades of separation and estrangement among parts of the family. Some had not encountered each other since Pete Cole’s funeral in 1970.
So the return of the Purple Heart medal not only reunited the medal with its recipient, but helped to bring together members of the family who had not interacted in nearly a half-century, she said.
Boost was reunited with a cousin, the only child of her father’s brother. They picked up where they’d left off, she said. “It was like there was no time space in between.”
“I’ve had a good life but now it’s better,” Boost said of the family ties knitted back together through the return of her father’s medal. “It’s been quite an adventure and a long overdue family reunion.”
Maxine Cole was also delighted by the repercussions of the medal’s return to her brother-in-law’s family.
“It just tickles me to death,” she said. “It was just a wonderful thing that this did come about.”
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-3017, or follow @douglaseye on Twitter.