Long lost World War I Purple Heart finds its way back home to Maine family

Posted Feb. 02, 2014, at 3:07 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 02, 2014, at 6:02 p.m.

PITTSFIELD, Maine — A year and three months after the United States entered World War I, Pvt. 1st Class Frank E. Conroy was wounded while serving with the 2nd Infantry Division in France.

The Purple Heart he earned for his meritorious service nearly a century ago was somehow lost, but on Sunday, it was returned to his surviving family members in Pittsfield.

“He’s a great-granduncle,” Monica Pollard said of Conroy. “He’s my grandmother’s uncle.”

Pollard found out about her family member’s missing Purple Heart while working on her family tree on Ancestry.com, which is where Sheila Bedi of Vershire, Vt., left a message saying she found the medal amongst items owned by her own deceased uncle.

Conroy, who moved to Portland after returning from the war, was born in 1894 in Lynn, Mass., and he joined the Army in Syracuse, N.Y., in July of 1917, just three months after the U.S. joined the European fight against the Germans, according to military and genealogical records.

He served with the 2nd Infantry Division and saw action at Aisne, Chateau-Thierry, Marbache, St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne in France. He was wounded July 1, 1918, a couple months before the Hundred Days Offensive, a series of Allied attacks that led to the end of the war on Nov. 11, 1918.

Conroy returned home Aug. 4, 1919, and he was discharged from service nine days later.

Pollard said she knows little about where in France or how Conroy was injured, but she does know he died at a young age.

“He was only 42,” she said.

Conroy did marry, and while living in Portland, he owned and operated his own lunch bus. He died in 1936.

His name is found on a large family tombstone in Birch Grove Cemetery in Bangor, where several of his family members lived, though it isn’t clear whether he is buried there.

“They didn’t have children of their own,” Pollard said of her great-granduncle and his wife.

“I’m going to get [the medal] professionally framed in a shadow box with a little bio written up,” Pollard said. She said she wanted to put it in a place of honor at her house.

No pictures of her great-granduncle have survived.

“I have a print of the big family grave stone, and I have some pictures of my grandmother and her brother, but none of her uncle,” Pollard said.

Bedi said she has to thank the Purple Hearts Reunited, founded by Vermont National Guard Capt. Zachariah Fike. She said Fike found Conroy listed as a relative on Pollard’s Ancestry.com family tree and connected her with Bedi.

“It was a great experience and a good learning point for me,” Bedi said after she and her husband, Walter, dropped off the medal. “Anytime you do something different that you haven’t done before, i think you grow from it.”

Purple Hearts Reunited is a nonprofit foundation that locates lost or stolen military medals and returns them to veterans or their families in order to honor their sacrifice, Fike said Thursday. So far, he said, nearly 70 medals have been reunited with rightful owners.

“The thing that really surprised me when I spoke to Captain Fike is that he said you would be surprised as to how many of these Purple Hearts are just laying around in junk boxes or in pawn stores,” Pollard said. “To me, it’s a pretty sacred thing, and they aren’t always treated that way.”

Pollard’s husband, Mo, retired from the Navy with rank of force master about four years ago after a 32-year career and one of their two daughters is married to a Navy man.

“They already have a large frame full of medals her husband has earned,” Bedi said. “It’s going to go up right beside that.”

The effort to find the proper owner of the Purple Heart has been difficult at times, but in the end very rewarding, Bedi said.

“It didn’t belong to me,” she said. “It had no meaning to me, but it has a lot of personal meaning to Monica and her family. They’re a military family. It was the right thing to do.”

BDN reporter Dawn Gagnon contributed to this story.

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