Former Marine Dennis C. Connor got his Purple Heart this month - 53 better-late-than-never years after the event.
"It's for my grandchildren. I never really expected to get it," Connor, 77, said from his home in Ellisville.
Connor, a retired Missouri Conservation Department agent in St. Louis County, is one of a handful of living survivors of the Battle of Wake Island, in the opening hours of World War II. The 3-square-mile northern Pacific atoll, a key staging area for Pan American Clipper planes and U.S. air forces, was attacked by the Japanese on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1941, after their massive bombardment of Pearl Harbor. Connor was a private first class who had enlisted in the Marines two years earlier, as a 20-year-old from LaMonte, Mo., which is near Sedalia. He and the rest of the 388-man First Marine Defense Battalion held off Japanese invaders for 16 crucial days. The garrison was cited by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for giving American forces time to recover and regroup, after the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. Connor, whose communications job was to re-lay telephone lines after each of the constant aerial attacks, escaped without a scratch. Forty-nine Marines were lost, along with many of the 1,100 civilians building airfields on the island, before the garrison surrendered to overwhelming invasion forces, on Dec. 23. What followed for Connor were nearly four harsh years as a prisoner of war, shuttling from one camp to another in China and Japan. In early 1944, Connor and other survivors of Wake Island, Bataan and Corregidor were prisoners in the Fukuoka Camp No. 3 in southern Japan. They were forced to put in 12 to 14 hours a day at nearby steel mills. Presumably because he did not bow low enough for a squad of passing soldiers, he was smashed in the face with a rifle butt, and his nose was badly broken. "I didn't get it taken care of until about 20 years ago, when doctors reconstructed it at a VA hospital," Connor said. A broken nose seemed inconsequential in times when the young Marine was trying to survive near-starvation and bitter cold in the camps and witnessing the beheading of American prisoners on the infamous prison ship, Nitta Maru, shortly after his capture. …