Sonja Gilmore, right, of the Blue Star Mothers Chapter 5 (Broken Arrow), chats with Phillip Coon, of Sapulpa, Okla., a 94-year-old World War II veteran who survived the Bataan death march. (Cory Young / AP)
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TULSA, OKLA. — Given the choice, World War II veteran Phillip Coon probably wouldn’t want the formality and fuss of being honored on a military base with men and women standing at attention, dressed in full regalia — even if it was with a fistful of long-overdue medals he waited decades to receive.
So it’s fitting that the awards were presented to the humble Tulsa-area man Monday evening in an informal ceremony at the Tulsa International Airport, with family and fellow veterans in attendance and little pomp and circumstance.
The 94-year-old survivor of a POW labor camp and the Bataan Death March received the Prisoner of War Medal, Bronze Star and the Combat Infantryman Badge after he and his son, Michael, returned from a trip to Japan to promote understanding and healing with the U.S.
A couple of dozen people applauded wildly after the medals were presented to Coon, who was seated in a wheelchair. He lifted his ball cap in recognition, exposing a shock of silver hair.
“I’ve been blessed to come this far in life,” he said, a tear streaming down one cheek. “I thank the Lord for watching over me.”
Japan’s Foreign Ministry said Coon visited the site of the former POW camp in Kosaka next to a now defunct copper mine where he was put to forced labor. The veteran also met the mayor and other officials in Kosaka, in Japan’s northern prefecture of Akita.
Coon, who lives in Sapulpa in northeastern Oklahoma, served as an infantry machine gunner in the Army. He is also a survivor of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines in 1942, when the Japanese military forced tens of thousands of American and Filipino soldiers to trek for 65 miles with little food or water in blazing heat. As many as 11,000 died along the way.
It’s not clear why Coon didn’t get his medals before now, but such occurrences with awards are not uncommon in the military.
“He was entitled to the medals but never received them,” said Jake Heisten, press secretary for U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, whose office contacted the military three weeks ago about the missing medals. “Unfortunately, our office comes across instances where members do not actually receive the awards they are eligible for or have already been awarded.”
Retired Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, Oklahoma’s secretary of military and veterans’ affairs, said most veterans were — rightly — more focused on reuniting with their families than chasing after military ribbons when they returned after the war.
Tulsa veteran David Rule, who served in the Vietnam War, helped Coon and his family to find out why his medals hadn’t been issued. For the past 10 years or so, Rule has helped recognize about 150 area veterans by memorializing their names, ranks and branches of service on granite plaques that are presented to them and their families.
“I have a passion for these servicemen,” Rule said earlier Monday. “They just sacrificed so much. It doesn’t matter to me whether they were a cook or a four-star general, just for them to get this million-dollar smile on their face when they know they aren’t forgotten.”
Associated Press reporter Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.