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AFTER 70-YEAR WAIT, WWII VETERAN HOLDS HIS MEDALS
Record - 8/18/2017
WEST MILFORD - The unmarked package wasn't exactly what Calvin Wagner was expecting. Neither was the delivery man.
On Thursday morning, Congressman Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) stopped by Wagner's West Milford home to present the 91-year-old U.S. Navy veteran with five service medals he earned in World War II. The content in the pristine display box arrived about 70 years late, but Wagner had no complaints.
"I thought they would give them to me when I left the Navy, but they didn't," he said with a laugh. "After a while, I didn't even think about them. But then my daughter, she said she would try to get them."
"I thought I might get the medals eventually, but not like this," Wagner said. "I didn't expect anything like this."
Gottheimer said he may have been equally awed by the moment. The home visit was the freshman congressman's first experience handing medals to a veteran. The moment was an emotional one, he said.
"It reminds you why we have to stand by our values," Gottheimer said. "We can't take [freedom] for granted."
With three-younger generations of family members crowding around his lounge chair, Wagner showed off the medals: American Campaign, Asiatic Pacific Campaign, European African Middle Eastern Campaign, World War II Victory, and Navy Occupation Service.
The bronze medals are small, 11/4 to 13/8 of an inch in diameter, and somewhat dull. The gleam in Wagner's eyes outshone them all, hinting to their true value.
Wagner, one of five brothers who served in the military during World War II, worked as a Navy storekeeper supplying the front lines during the conflict. Late deliveries were certainly frowned upon, the Brooklyn native said.
World War II took Wagner to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Mediterranean theaters. The Navy, and the war itself, brought him to places he would not have gone otherwise, he said.
There were times, however, when Wagner thought he may miss out. One morning in Pearl Harbor, he awoke to find that his unit's ship had moved while he slept overnight.
"I was running all over the place," he said. "I didn't want to be left behind."
Wagner also recalled boot camp in Sampson, N.Y. when he was classified as a holdover by the medical staff after testing positive for high blood sugar. Wagner said he ate too much candy and had to wait three days for a retest before graduating. He said he still eats candy, but "not at certain times."
"They put this H.O. (for holdover) on my chest," Wagner said, writing out the letters in the air with his index finger. "I said, 'What is this H.O.?' They said I had a meeting with sheriff sugar."
While Wagner was in the service, his wife of 70 years, Anna, said the two would write each other letters each night.
"I knew something was going on when he didn't write back. But he was moving all over. They always had to be where the action was," she said. "I was glad when the end came."
Now, Wagner never talks about the war, she said, "it's not something that we discuss."
"He keeps things to himself," she said. "He's probably a lot prouder of this than he's showing. I'm so proud of him too."
Gloria Wagner, his daughter, said her father is too humble to ask for the medals himself. "He never wants for anything," she said of her father. So she took it upon herself to reach out for Gottheimer's office for assistance.
Gottheimer said Wagner's brave service demanded the delivery of a long-overdue award. "For me this is an enormous honor," Gottheimer said.
After exchanging goodbyes with Gottheimer, Wagner's eyes wandered around the living room. His hands remained firm on the box.
The former New York City sanitation worker said he was thinking about displaying the medals somewhere in the room - perhaps next to his Navy portrait positioned by the front window.
Wagner said he had his doubts he would ever get his hands on them. He still may not. Wagner said he has no intention of taking the medals out of the box.
After all this time, "I'd just like to look at them," he said.