Whitewater postmaster delivers abandoned Purple Heart

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, November 23, 2013

WHITEWATER--Sherrie Benes carefully lifted the decades-old medal out of her desk drawer and turned it over. On the back, a raised bronze heart held a simple inscription: SSgt. Leo L. Olson.

A year ago, Benes became Whitewater's new postmaster. Two days later, she discovered the Purple Heart, which is awarded to members of the military who have been wounded or killed by the enemy.

Her heart swelled with questions: “Who is Leo Olson?” “What is his story?” “Why did she cross paths with him?”

Benes never suspected that finding the solemn reminder of sacrifice in a plain cardboard box would signal the start of a powerful journey.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I expect myself to be drawn into a soldier's life,” she said. “By the end, I felt like I had paid tribute to a son I never knew.”

She asked her colleagues why the medal was at the post office. They told her someone had slipped it into the outside collection box before she started her job.

Benes never hesitated about what to do.

“Being the mother of a son who serves in our military,” she said, “I knew I had to take the medal home.”

First, she needed to find out about the man who earned it. By searching online, she learned that Leo grew up on a Trempealeau County farm, nestled in a scenic valley settled by Norwegians. He and his parents, Chat and Hannah Olson, attended nearby Tamarack Lutheran Church.

Eventually, Benes found out that Leo served with the U.S. Army during World War II and was reported missing in action in the Philippines on May 7, 1945.

“It made me shiver thinking about what this young soldier saw and felt while serving our country,” Benes said. “It made me wonder about the family that wept over their loved one.”

Earlier this month, Benes and two family members drove north to Trempealeau County. Their first stop was at Veterans Memorial Park, Arcadia, where they found Leo's name on a stone honoring World War II veterans. Then, they stopped at the family's picturesque church.

“While there, church historian Randy Nilsestuen just happened to be going by,” Benes said. “He asked if he could help us. If we had been a few minutes earlier or later, our paths never would have crossed. Someone put us there at that time and that place for the meeting to happen.”

Nilsestuen showed them how to get to the unsigned Tamarack Lutheran Cemetery, where Leo's memorial sits next to his parents' headstones. Benes' husband found the memorial right away.

“He said he felt like someone drew him to it,” Benes said.

When she stood over Leo's weathered stone, she whispered words from the heart:

“I brought your Purple Heart home, Leo.”

The next day, Benes shared her story at the Tamarack church, where she left the medal because she had found no family members.

“I know it is in a good place, now,” she said.

But the story did not end there.

Fort Atkinson resident Betty Veto learned about the Purple Heart's journey through a newspaper story.

Her memories flashed back to childhood.

Veto's family farm was next to the Olson place.

When the military men came to tell Leo's parents that he was missing in action, they stopped at the Veto farm to ask directions.

“It was my birthday,” Veto said. “That's why I remember it so vividly. I was playing in our yard when I saw the car. I knew it was bad because my parents had talked to us about the war.”

She also remembers the party Leo had before going into the military, how he had gotten married and, later, an empty casket with a flag draped over it when he died.

“It was very sad for me as a neighbor to know he was gone,” Veto said. “I never forgot what happened to Leo. I had two brothers in the military, but they came home.”

Veto told Benes that Leo never had kids, but his sister had four sons.

She also shed more light on Leo's service.

He died on the Filipino island of Luzon, where the U.S. Sixth Army made a massive amphibious assault in January 1945 and where U.S. casualties were high. Apparently, the military looked for Leo's body for four years without success.

A week ago, Benes made another emotional trip to the Tamarack church, where she presented the Purple Heart to Leo's three surviving nephews. They brought along a memory book about Leo, which included the Western Union telegram announcing his death.

Benes also learned that Leo had been awarded a Silver Star for gallantry in action. Under intense machine-gun fire, he led his platoon forward without regard to his own safety—and survived.

Benes does not know how Leo eventually died, but she rests easier now.

“It means the world to me that his nephews have the medal,” Benes said. “I was emotional when I handed it over. They all thanked me from their hearts.”

As to why the medal ended up in a postal collection box is still a mystery.

Benes guesses there might have been an auction of the Olson estate and the Purple Heart was put in a box with other treasures. When it was rediscovered, someone dropped it into a postal box.

“From the day I picked up the medal to the day I die, Leo will be a son that I never knew,” Benes said.

“He will always hold a special place in my heart.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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