FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Marvin D. Cornett was 23 years old when he parachuted into Italy during World War II and was wounded in combat. At 99 years old, he officially received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal for his injuries and actions on New Year's Eve in 1944.
The 82nd Airborne Division veteran received a proper military awards ceremony in Auburn, Calif. on Feb. 22 with the help of his family, friends, veterans and Paratroopers.
Cornett was assigned to Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Abn. Div. when he made the combat jump into Salerno, Italy. It was during combat operations along the Mussolini Canal at the Anzio beachhead that he was wounded in action by a German mortar round that exploded near him.
He was reassigned to The Parachute School at Fort Benning, Ga. after being wounded and served as an instructor. He immediately bought an Army surplus Harley-Davidson motorcycle, which he used to woo the Women's Army Corps parachute rigger on the installation that would later become his wife of 72 years.
Cornett was honorably discharged from the Army in 1945. After trying his hand at various jobs, he returned to military service in 1948 and was assigned to an escort attachment for those killed in action. He then worked in supply and motor maintenance units throughout the country. He also served in France on the famed “Red Ball Express,” which moved supplies into Germany. He retired in 1968 as an Army recruiter and a sergeant first class. He then moved to California with his wife and two daughters.
In all that time, he never received the Purple Heart or Bronze Star Medal he was eligible for and never attempted to seek them out.
According to Jan Mendoza, Cornett's daughter, her father never felt like he deserved the award because the Soldier next to him was killed and he was only injured.
It was while researching Cornett's career at Mendoza's request that William Linn, a retired lieutenant colonel and the vice president of Heritage Arsenal, a military museum consulting firm, discovered the missing Purple Heart on Cornett's official record. Linn advised her to consider seeking out the award for Cornett with his help, which they did. Mendoza worked on filing for the award with Linn in secrecy from her father.
Linn said the endeavor was personal for him and brought honor to the honorable.
“As a veteran myself, I feel a deep connection to other veterans and their families,” said Linn. “The reconciliation that occurs when these issues are favorably concluded is worth all the time and effort.”
Linn said he was raised to show respect to veterans like Cornett and that his respect for them only grew throughout his own time serving in the Army. He said helping to secure Cornett's awards was about thanking a whole generation of veterans, many of them no longer alive.
Cornett's daughter said that Linn was hugely instrumental in securing the Purple Heart so quickly. Mendoza began the whole process with him in October.
In December, Cornett was surprised to be presented the official awards from the Army at his residence in California.
“I can't believe it. I just really can't believe it,” Cornett said when given the awards last year, according to Mendoza.
For Mendoza, the discovery and procurement of the awards were about putting the puzzle pieces of her father's legacy together and giving him the ultimate gift for his 100th birthday. She said she couldn't think of anything better than a Purple Heart.
“I was trying to build his legacy for the family. My dad never talked about World War II ever and it was like the big missing piece to the puzzle,” Mendoza said. “I knew he was a Paratrooper. He's very proud to be a Paratrooper. He had the 82nd Airborne patches, bumper stickers, flags and everything, but he never talked about what he actually did.”
Mendoza said getting her father the Purple Heart was like finishing the story of her father's Army career.
Linn and Mendoza didn't stop there though. Linn reached out to the 82nd Airborne Division to help piece together a presentation fit for a member of the “Greatest Generation”.
With the help of Linn, Mendoza, The American Legion Post 84, the 82nd Airborne Division and others, Cornett was formally presented the Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal in California 76 years after he was wounded.
Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, the 82nd Airborne Division commanding general, spoke directly to Cornett at the ceremony via video conference.
Donahue told Cornett that Gen. Mathew Ridgway, the division commander when Cornett earned the awards, would be proud of everything he did while serving in the 82nd and what he did with his life afterward. He also thanked Cornett for the example he has set.