Korean War veteran dies awaiting Purple Heart

An Iowa man who served in Korea and was a prisoner of war died just three hours before his long-awaited purple heart was delivered to his home. 

In the home of Richard Morrison you’d never guess a loved one had just passed away.

When Morrison returned from Korean Conflict in 1953 he brought back scars of war, some he talked about, some would take more than a half century to come to life.  Captured in North Korea along with more than 3,000 other Americans, Morrison was a prisoner of war.

“He said when he got to Camp 5 there was a Coca-Cola thermometer and it said what, 26 below zero,” says Richard’s son Matt Morrison.

Richard would eventually tell his family it wasn’t unusual to go for days without eating.

He lost 97 pounds in his first three months as POW, and he was often forced to bury his friends who’d fallen victim to enemy bullets, disease or starvation.

“They stacked ‘em like cordwood. Waiting for the ground to thaw so they could then bury them. If you were able to, that’s what, if you were able-bodied you had to go bury your buddies,” says Richard’s oldest son Bob.

But after two and a half years as a POW, Richard was finally set free.

And on Mother’s Day 1953, exactly three years after he left for war, Richard Morrison returned home to Burlington, Iowa, and to a family who’d never given up hope.

“She said to us, ‘I know your brother’s going to come home, don’t ever doubt it, just pray that he won’t suffer too much wherever he is now,’ and he did come home. Other than the day I was married it might be the happiest day of my life,” says Richard’s sister Beverly Koch.

Back at home Richard didn’t talk much about his time in Korea. He took a job as a tool and die maker and raised seven kids with his wife Geneva.

“And all the way down the line he always said the only hero in this story was Geneva,”  says Jennifer Morrison.

His kids say after his wife died last year, Richard was never the same.

He started talking more, and then one day a bombshell:  He’d been injured behind enemy lines in Korea.

Richard was eligible to receive the Purple Heart, and he had telegraphs to prove it, but a clerical error meant he’d never received the medal. 

As months went by Richard’s health continued to deteriorate, and the man who’d spent his life serving his country and his family made one final request.

He wanted the Purple Heart he’d earned as a POW 59 years ago.

His children say that’s what kept him going. 

The family immediately began calling everyone they could. At first there was some push back in Washington. But the telegrams soon put any doubt to rest, Richard Morrison had earned his Purple Heart. The problem was his health was continuing to spiral downward.

“The next morning he could barely speak and he could barely open his eyes,” says Lucia Mosier, Richard’s oldest daughter.

Morrison’s senator and congressman put a rush on the medal, overnighting it from Washington D.C. and even faxing him the certificate of authenticity. After a decades of waiting, Richard was about to receive his Purple Heart.

“When he had the certificate and he knew it was coming, he had the certificate, he was at peace,” says Matt.

A regional manager from UPS volunteered to personally drive the medal the last leg it’s journey. But when he arrived at Richard’s home – he was too late. A van from the mortuary was already in the driveway.

“The van from the funeral home came to pick him up, and they were right behind them,” says Matt.

The old vet had died three hours before his Purple Heart arrived. But before being taken to the funeral parlor Morrison’s family held a very special ceremony, delivering him the Purple Heart he’d waited his whole life for.

“He was a humble, but a very brave and true patriot. He loved this country,” says Michelle Balbort, Richard’s niece.

And as Richard’s family prepares for his funeral, an old newsreel with never footage most have never seen from his triumphant return in 1953 reminds them one last time that this is a life worth celebrating.

In a final act of honor, the man who pinned the Purple Heart to Richard Morrison’s chest was his grand-daughter’s husband, an injured Iraq War vet who’s also waiting on his own Purple Heart.

Richard Morrison’s funeral will be held Wednesday morning, February 29, 2012 at 10 a.m. at St. Paul Catholic Church in Burlington, Iowa.

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