World War II Veteran will receive a Purple Heart after 57 years
by Andy Porter

 

Fifty-seven years ago on a remote Pacific island, Robert Worthington, then a young Marine Corps private, was wounded in the line of duty.

Normally, Worthington would have been awarded a Purple Heart. But it was 1942 and Worthington was on Guadalcanal, where nothing was normal.

Worthington survived the battle but he never got his medal.

But this June, thanks to the testimony of a Medal of Honor winner, Worthington will finally receive his decoration during ceremonies in Roseburg.

Now a Coos Bay resident, in 1942 Worthington was one of the men of the First Marine Division who landed on Guadalcanal on April 7 to start the Allies’ first major land offensive against the Imperial Japanese army.

Like thousands of other young men, Worthington, then a single 17-year-old from Point Reyes, Calif., enlisted to defend America in the wake of Pearl Harbor. He chose to join the Marine Corps and did so on New Year’s Day 1942.

"The recruiting sergeant told me there were canoe rides and palm trees on Parris Island," Worthington said with a laugh. Instead, there was rigorous drill and discipline that turned him and hundred of others into Marines.

On Guadalcanal, Worthington’s company was defending a two-mile long, half-mile wide section of Henderson Field, the island’s only landing strip, when he was bayoneted in the left arm during a daylight attack.

Pressed for details of the encounter, Worthington declined to answer, saying the memories are too painful to dredge up even now. However, with a Marine’s characteristic bluntness, he recounted how he was merely "given a couple of stitches" and returned to action.

"If you were wounded like me, they just patched you up and you went back out," Worthington said.

No medals were awarded for being wounded in action. At that time, Purple Hearts were only being awarded to men so badly wounded they had to be evacuated.

Although he received other minor wounds in the following months, Worthington managed to live through the bitter fighting.

"We lost 50-60 men every day through bombs or shells, and then ‘Washing Machine Charley’ would fly over every night to drop bombs, just to keep us awake," the veteran recalled.

"So we were deprived of sleep and we had Malaria. We had no emotions left except anger. That’s what sustained us in battle."

However, the strain of combat has left him suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He also has developed a serious heart condition, which doctors have told him is terminal, which he attributes in part to the strain of the battle.

Although his outfit was relieved in December 1942, Worthington volunteered to stay behind. But in February 1943, his heart condition, which had been previously undiagnosed, caused him to collapse. He was evacuated back to the states and given a medical discharge in 1944.

After the war, Worthington held a number of jobs and eventually went on to a successful career as a superintendent for a high-rise construction company. Ten years ago, he retired and moved to Coos Bay, where he now lives near his daughter, Susan Worthington.

Now 74 years old, Worthington is still erect and trim, although age and his medical condition have slowed his gait. His appearance gives little hint of the rigors he and others endured years ago in the tropics. He said he has never forgotten his experiences in the Marine Corps and has stayed in touch with other Guadalcanal veterans, including Col. Mitchell Paige, who had won the Medal of Honor in combat on Guadalcanal.

Several months ago, Worthington said, "I was talking with him one night and I said, ‘You know, I never did get that Purple Heart.’"

Paige advised him to call the Marine Commandant’s office in Quantico, Va., to request it and Worthington did so shortly afterward.

At first, "they denied me because there were no medical records," Worthington said, "but then they called Col. Paige and he endorsed it because he was an eyewitness to it."

 

Originally appeared in The South Coast Week, 5/26/99
Courtesy of Andy Porter

   
 

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