Lost medal replaced; Soldier earned cross in the ‘Great War’

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 17

In 26 days, the war that was supposed to “end all wars” would be over.

But for the moment, army Cpl. Elvin Pierson had a job to do. It was Oct. 16, 1918, and phone lines connecting the infantry in the trenches to the artillery behind them had been severed. Without coordination, American shells could end up hitting U.S. soldiers.

So Corporal Pierson became a human telephone, relaying messages between the two groups. Dashing through a haze of bullets and shells, he ran from trench to trench across the battlefield, always in the open, always a clear shot for German soldiers.

He did it four times. And yesterday, 37 years after his death, the award he earned was replaced.

Mr. Pierson’s two surviving child ren received the Distinguished Service Cross from U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) at a Veterans Day ceremony at De Veaux Junior High School.

“This just feels wonderful,” said daughter Patricia Doerr, 69. “I wanted to be able to show this medal to my grandkids.”

It was the second time an official presented the medal to Mr. Pierson. He received one just after World War I ended, but a family member lost it a few years later.

Men of the Pierson family fought in the Revolutionary and Civil wars, and Mr. Pierson joined their ranks just a few months after he graduated from Cornell University in 1917.

It was when the war was coming to a close when his bravery was ultimately tested. Germany had, less than two weeks earlier, sent American leaders their initial offer of peace, the offer that, in substantially the same form, would be accepted on Nov. 11, 1918.

But the promise of a coming peace did not mean the fighting got any less bloody in what was then called the Great War, and on Oct. 16, Corporal Pierson was in the thick of it.

He was in Bois de le Grand Montagne, a small French forest north of Verdun. When someone – a daring German, a stray bullet – severed the communication lines, he made his daring runs.

When he got home in one piece, his government honored his efforts with the medal, the second highest award a soldier can receive. He became an engineer, started a family – sons, Robert, who died in 1931; Richard, who died in 1994, and William, 65, and daughter, Patricia – and settled down.

Then one day, one of his sons took the medal to school – and lost it.

“We’re not sure which son did it,” said William, whose alibi is that, as the youngest son, he wasn’t born yet.

Growing up, Mrs. Doerr and Mr. Pierson thought they’d never see the medal again; they knew it only from photos. The family had lots of memorabilia from the war, including a certificate that came with the cross, signed by Gen. John J. Pershing. But not the medal.

Elvin Pierson died in 1960.

In 1995, Mrs. Doerr saw an article in The Blade that mentioned an address relatives of veterans could write for replacement medals.

She wrote a letter in March, then another in July, but got no reply. The process can take two years, in part because a fire at a St. Louis warehouse 20 years ago destroyed millions of military records, making the job of proving someone a medal winner a slow, arduous one.

It was only when Mr. Pierson contacted Miss Kaptur’s office last December that the Defense Department began to react, he said.

The ceremony was held at De Veaux before a student audience to increase children’s interest in Veterans Day. Some say the holiday has declined as veterans grow older and more children are born into a nation that has been at peace for their entire lives.

“I want to help inspire the children of peace to understand the sacrifices made by these men and women,” Miss Kaptur said.

“These kids all think war is like John Wayne and Rambo, and what they see on TV,” said Bob Mettler, administrator for the Lucas County Veterans Service Commission, who attended the ceremony. “They need to hear the real story.”

But the quest for the medal is not over for the Pierson family.

Minutes after receiving the replacement, Mr. Pierson flipped it over and read the inscription: “Elvin I. Pierson.”

His father’s name was Elvin L. Pierson.

The medal will be returned to Washington for re-engraving.