Lost Purple Heart will be returned to Collier daughter of World War II veteran
Found in a frigid Millvale park in February — likely discarded by a purse snatcher and later run over by a snow blower — a Purple Heart is coming home to the GI’s family, thanks to a pair of hawk-eyed joggers and a New England nonprofit dedicated to reuniting lost decorations with military heroes and their relatives.
Zachariah Fike, the founder of Vermont-based Purple Hearts Reunited, said Erin Heidecker, the Collier granddaughter of John Mackanos — an Army staff sergeant wounded in Europe during World War II — will receive the medal before Veterans Day. Mackanos, a former Hanna’s Town miner, left Westmoreland County in early 1941 to serve with Company D, 769th Military Police Battalion, and survived battles in Normandy and Belgium. Shortly before he died in 2009, he gave his granddaughter the medal commemorating his battlefield wounds.
The military awards the Purple Heart to service members wounded or killed in combat. Families often engrave the name of the deceased on the medal. That’s how Purple Hearts Reunited and its team of volunteer genealogists traced it to Heidecker. Heidecker declined to comment.
“Every time that we find one of these medals, we’re writing history again,” said Fike, 33, a captain in the Vermont Army National Guard who was wounded by a rocket blast in Afghanistan in 2010. “That’s because for most of these troops, no one did a newspaper story about how they got wounded or killed in action. When we return these lost medals to their families, we put on the Internet the history of their service so people can rediscover their sacrifice.”
Darren Toth, 41, of Millvale spotted the discarded medal inside Millvale’s Riverfront Park on Feb. 10, shortly after he twisted his ankle at the end of a 9-mile training run with his wife, Jamie.
“My father was about a year old when my grandfather, Augustine Francis Toth, was killed in action in France, so I knew how important the Purple Heart is. My grandfather shipped out, and my dad never really got a chance to know him, but he always held on to his Purple Heart,” Toth said.
Records show that Toth, a private in the 119th Infantry Regiment, part of the 30th “Old Hickory” Division, died in combat Aug. 12, 1944, and is buried in the Brittany American Cemetery and Memorial.
After photographing the medal and enlarging the photo to read the name etched on the back, Jamie Toth looked online to find local relatives of Mackanos, but she couldn’t. So she reached out to Fike’s organization, which has returned more than 100 medals to troops or their relatives.
Fike said Purple Hearts get lost frequently. Families often don’t understand their significance to combat vets, and they’re either sold at auction or tossed into the trash.
Supported by the Military Order of the Purple Heart and private companies, Fike’s charity puts the lost medal in a frame and presents it to the family during a ceremony.
Fike said engraved Purple Hearts are found “in every place imaginable,” tucked into flea market furniture, inside abandoned houses and, in one recent case, discovered by a scuba diver 50 miles off the Florida coast.
Carl Prine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7826 or [email protected].