By Austen Neaton
Longtime Waverly resident Jan Fitzpatrick recently came across a lost historical item that led her and some friends on a mission to return it to its rightful owner.
In late July, Fitzpatrick visited her friend, Cathy Maynard, who was holding a garage sale after cleaning out some old items in her house.
Fitzpatrick says that Maynard showed her a Purple Heart that had been in the bottom of a box of loose things for at least 20 years and that Maynard hoped that she might be able to help identify who it belonged to.
A Purple Heart medal is an honor awarded to military service members who have been wounded or were killed in action. Knowing that Jan and her husband, Tom, are active members of the Waverly American Legion and Auxiliary, Maynard asked the two to find out more about the medal’s rightful owner.
Jan said that finding the item’s owner as soon as possible became a priority, as she had a brother who was awarded a Purple Heart after losing his life while fighting in the Vietnam War.
“It just touched me because Cathy brought it to me, and I lost a brother in the Vietnam War. I know what my brother’s Purple Heart and all of his medals mean to me and the memory of my brother,” she explained. “So that’s where my heart is in so much of all this because I know that it belongs to a family.”
After taking the medal home, she and Tom, who served for two years in the US Navy from 1968-1969, began researching the name inscribed on the medal.
The two found that it was given to Cpl. Hugh Joseph Akins, and that he served in World War II. They also found that Akins was born and raised in Pennsylvania and died Oct. 4, 1944. He is currently buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, The Netherlands.
At a standstill for more information, Jan and Tom reached out to their friend and fellow Waverly Legion member Dave Holmes.
Holmes served in the US Army Reserves from 1957-1965, and over the years, he has been involved in numerous projects to commemorate long-deceased veterans. In 2018, Holmes helped do research for a registry of any war veterans connected to Waverly that served in World War I. He is also currently working on the veteran directory for the Waverly Veterans Memorial Wall.
Holmes delved into the project and used sources such as Ancestry.com, online obituaries, and other online military records to uncover the story of two brothers lost to World War II.
Cpl. Hugh Akins was born May 21, 1923. Akins enlisted in the US Army in 1942, at the age of 19, as part of a military draft that randomly selected men ages 18-25 to enlist in the military.
Upon enrollment, he was assigned as a paratrooper to the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment as a part of the 82nd Airborne Division, an elite military division that can deploy with 18 hours’ notice.
Paratroopers are soldiers that are deployed out of a plane by parachute to land in denied areas behind enemy lines.
Though Holmes found that Akins was likely fighting in Holland before he died, he says it is unclear which battles he may have fought.
Among the notable battles, he may have fought in are Operation Market Garden and Operation D-Day.
Operation Market Garden was an airborne operation that took place in September 1944. It attempted to get American forces and their allies into Northern Germany to try and shorten the war. Though the operation ultimately failed, it became famous for the courage and determination shown by the soldiers during the effort.
The infamous Operation Overlord, known as “D-Day,” occurred on June 6, 1944, and took place on the shores of Normandy, France. The operation allowed Americans and their allies to retake a considerable portion of France after the enemy German army had taken control of the country. The operation was considered a key component in ending World War II.
It is unclear how many times Akins deployed from a plane during his military career. However, Holmes confirmed that his cause of death was shrapnel wounds from enemy artillery and that he died at the age of 21. “None of these guys were very old, and there weren’t very many old guys there,” Holmes said.
Holmes also says that while he found as much as he could about Akins, he may never know how the Purple Heart medal got to Minnesota. “That’s the one there that nobody can know. Nobody knows how it got here,” he said. “There are a lot of mysteries that you’ll never solve, and you can only go so far down the trail before you say, ‘Well, I just gotta give up on this one.”
The corporal’s brother
During Holmes’s research, he found that Akins had four other brothers who also served in the US Army or Army Air Corps at some point. One of his brothers, Francis, also fought and died in World War II.
Francis was a pilot for a heavy bomber squadron, which dropped large bombs from planes onto known enemy fronts. In addition, he piloted a B17 bomber, which at the time was the largest plane available to the US Military.
According to Holmes, only approximately 25% of those on bombing crews survived the war unscathed. Francis died in action just two weeks before Hugh was eventually lost to the war. He was 23 years old when he died.
Francis died during a mission to drop supplies to the Polish Underground Army in Warsaw, Poland, during the Warsaw Uprising. The Warsaw Uprising was an effort by the Polish resistance to take back the City of Warsaw from German enemy control.
His mission was to pilot a B17 containing bombshells loaded with supplies rather than explosives as his crew deployed the supplies to the Polish resistance below. On the day he died, he and his plane were part of a fleet of over 100 B17s dropping supplies to the area.
As a bomber pilot, Francis had to fly straight through war zones as his crew deployed bombs on their targets below. Due to the size of the plane and the process of dropping bombs, B17s could not perform any evasive maneuvers.
Because of this, Francis’s plane was shot down by ground artillery. It is believed that Francis was also hit with artillery shrapnel while piloting the plane.
Francis was also awarded a Purple Heart for his service.
According to Holmes, a memorial for the crew stands today in Lomianki, Poland, a city near Warsaw.
In his research, Holmes found a living relative of the Akins brothers, Francis’s daughter Marcia. She was two years old when her father passed away.
Marcia assisted Holmes in his research. Finally, Hugh’s Purple Heart was packaged and sent to her as its rightful owner.
Coincidentally, the medal arrived on October 14, the anniversary of Hugh Akins’s death.
Marcia said she was thankful to everyone who helped get the medal to her. “Thank you all who have helped share and care. There are no words that can express my gratitude for all the kind strangers that have come into my life through some connection to my dad and my uncle. I like to think of them as little hugs,” Marcia said. “I hope it reminds many of the freedoms that we have today.”
Jan says that anyone who finds important pieces of history should try to return them to their owners, particularly military awards. “What I would want people to take away from this is how important this can be to a family. To anybody else, if this ever happens to them, they know that there’s some family out there that it means a great deal to,” she said.
Tom said the medal was a reminder of the results of many peoples’ sacrifices for the country. “We probably live in the greatest country in the world. I mean, look at how bad it is in Russia, Ukraine, or Iran; we have it so much better. Certainly, we can complain about inflation and whatever else happens here in the US, but it doesn’t compare to what happens in other countries. We always have plenty to eat,” he said.
Jan agreed. “When Tom says probably, I say, ‘we do have the best. We live in a world where when I look at what is happening in Ukraine, I am not about to complain that I have gas in my car. I’m not going to complain that my turkey this year cost as much as it did because we have food. My dad used to say that ‘if we have food in the refrigerator, we are not poor,’ and so many don’t all over the world,” she said.
Connie Holmes, Dave’s wife and Mayor of Waverly, also reminded us to honor those who fought for our country’s freedoms.
“It was made possible by all the sacrifices that our fellow countrymen made in all of the wars, and it doesn’t matter which one; we wouldn’t have the freedoms we have if they hadn’t given their lives for our freedom.”