Though Army Major Zacharia Fike’s military service has included combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, among other parts of the world, his mission this week in visiting Pittsburg was to return a lost Purple Heart medal to the resting place of a local veteran.
Fike is the founder of the nonprofit group Purple Hearts Reunited, which gathers lost or stolen medals and then seeks out either living family members of veterans or museums in their hometowns to donate the medals to.
“We’ve returned over 800 to date and we would anticipate based off the averages that we receive in a day or a calendar year that there’s tens of thousands of these Purple Hearts that have lost their way,” Fike said. “At the end of the day we just strive to make sure that these veterans aren’t forgotten, and neither are their families.”
From pawn shops to forgotten hiding places beneath the floorboards of abandoned houses, the medals can be found in any number of places.
“Metal detector enthusiasts are finding them buried in the ground,” Fike said. “Taxi cabs, Walmart parking lots, you name it, we’ve heard about it.”
Fike was in Pittsburg Wednesday to present the medals, burial flag, uniform, cap, satchel, business cards, address book, dog tags, and miscellaneous items including some that were probably good luck charms, belonging to First Lieutenant Jack R. Cannon, a World War II veteran who passed away June 8, 1994, to the Crawford County Historical Museum.
First Lieutenant Cannon served with the 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division during World War II. His unit served in the Philippines, Fike said, and while it is unknown exactly how he was wounded in combat, resulting in his receiving the Purple Heart, it is likely, based on the visible blood on the satchel he apparently kept for the rest of his life, that he was either shot or hit by shrapnel in the abdomen area.
Cannon was born May 19, 1918, in Pleasanton, Kansas, to Lester R. Cannon and Rena Mae Beebe Cannon. He had two siblings, Roy M. Cannon and Evangeline L. Cannon. His wife, Virginia Cannon, passed away in 2004. From World War II through the end of his life Lt. Cannon lived in Pittsburg, Fike said. He is buried in the Garden of Memories Cemetery.
Purple Hearts Reunited has spent two years attempting to locate and contact living family members of Cannon but has been unsuccessful so far, Fike said. Some people initially think Purple Hearts Reunited is a scam or is looking for money for the medals it returns, he added.
“People doing the right thing these days is kind of rare,” Fike said, “so it takes us a little bit of time to kind of gain their trust, and then deliver these back home.”
The items delivered to the Crawford County Historical Museum this week were obtained from a collector, and the fact that they were all kept together indicates they may have come from an estate sale.
“In this case that circumstance to me really isn’t that important — obviously it’s part of the story — the important piece is it’s come home,” Fike said.
As a veteran, Fike said, he doesn’t like the fact that Purple Hearts are often sold for profit, but as 501(c)(3) organization that relies on donations, Purple Hearts Reunited is able to use some of its funding to acquire the medals and related items and return them to family and museums free of charge.
“We’re hoping twofold that some local history is coming home and that maybe some family will come forward,” Fike said. “Someone’s going to know. Someone’s going to be like ‘I knew Jack,’ you know, ‘and I knew his sister’ or something, or ‘I knew his son, and he moved down to Texas,’ and those clues will help us kind of steer into that family.”
Crawford County Historical Museum Director Amanda Minton said the museum will be honored to have Cannon’s Purple Heart medal and other items on display, and to hold the items for safekeeping until a family member can hopefully be located.
“People who come through the museum, if they happen to know him or know that he has family, that’s just another great source for them to be able to contact Purple Hearts Reunited or let the family know that it’s here at the Crawford County Historical Museum,” Minton said.
The Crawford County Historical Museum is located at 651 S. Highway 69 in Pittsburg. It is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and from noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. For more information call 620-231-1440.