COLUMBIANA - When a July 12, 1973 fire destroyed World War II veteran Carl E. Will's service records he thought they were gone forever. But his grandson, Matt Skillman, wouldn't give up on getting them back.
Over the years Skillman had listened to his grandfather tell stories of the war and of the records that were lost in the fire. They were housed in the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.
"I wanted to see if it was possible to find these records," Skillman said.
In June he sent a letter to Columbiana Councilman Bryan Blakeman and U.S. Congressman Bill Johnson (R-Marietta), requesting their help. He and other relatives had already attempted -- unsuccessfully -- to get any documents from the department of defense.
Blakeman said that as soon as Johnson's office was contacted he intervened.
Jackie Stewart, field representative for Johnson, said his office researched and corresponded with the department of defense before the records were made available following validation of Will's service in the Air Corps. Replicas of the records were made available within six weeks, she said.
Skillman said the family learned in July that Will was entitled to medals of Honor for his service.
Will had enlisted on Nov. 7, 1942 and served three years. During that time he flew with the B-24 Liberator crew in the 464th bombardment group stationed in Pantanella, Italy.
His awards include the Air Force Distinguished Service medal, Purple Heart, Air medal, American Campaign medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign medal, European-Africa-Middle Eastern Campaign medal, and World War II Victory medal.
Johnson presented the medals to Will during a surprise ceremony at the Columbiana American Legion Post 290 on Tuesday.
Johnson said he enjoyed getting to know Will's family during the process and said Will's service in World War II was a "tough, tough job."
Johnson, a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Air Force, pointed out the B-24 Liberator wasn't a very popular aircraft during that time, as it wasn't always reliable. There were times it took off from the runway and times it wouldn't, he said.
Johnson also presented Will with a signed letter and a flag that was flown over the nation's Capitol earlier that day specifically for him.
"Thank you for the sacrifices you made. You are a part of the greatest generation," he told Will. "Your service during World War II was brave and selfless."
Will, who had thought he was coming to the Legion to receive a certificate for 50 years as a member, was visibly touched by the display and when given the opportunity to speak, remained silent and saluted his fellow veterans as tears rolled down his cheeks.
Will was presented with the American Legion membership certificate and also recognized by Dave Hilliard, second vice commander for the state Legion.
"I also am holding back tears," Hilliard said, as he put his arm around Will. "I'm so happy to be here."
Will's son, Tom Will, said that he went with his father to many World War II reunions and heard the stories of heroism from the men who were there.
"Thousands would go out and only hundreds would come back. We are just happy our father returned," he said.
He then gave his father a letter written by his uncle, Donald R. Infante, who was unable to attend. Infante is a retired U.S. Army major general and had also attempted to recover the medals and records at one point.
Carl Will has lived in Thonotosassa, Fla., over the last 20 years and spends each summer with Dave Skillman and his wife Linda in Columbiana.
Carl Will's children include Linda Skillman, Tom Will of Canfield, Pat Will, of East Liverpool, and Jan Daley, of Columbiana. Another son, David Will, passed away in March.
Carl Will said he never expected to have the records recovered, or the medals.
"Matt kept digging and digging I had given up about 10, 12, or 15 years ago," he said.