Southwest Florida group saves Purple Heart from trash

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(News-Press) A yellowed document and a handful of black-and-white photos of a young man in uniform recently surfaced in a pile of dilapidated furniture.

Two words jumped off the page: "PURPLE HEART."

It was the citation awarded to Pfc. Richard Ferris "for military merit and for wounds received in action resulting in his death September 9, 1943."

Robert Raybuck, an employee of iStorage Fiddlesticks in Fort Myers, discovered the items in March while cleaning out an abandoned 10 x 10 storage unit in Fort Lauderdale.

"It's a good representation of his life and what he died for," he said.

A volunteer with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 9-10 Fort Myers/Cape Coral, Raybuck turned them over to this commander, Connie Irvin.

She reached out to Purple Hearts Reunited in Vermont, which works to return lost or stolen medals to veterans or their families.

Capt. Zachariah Fike, the nonprofit organization's founder, sent his research.

Who was Ferris?

Ferris was born Oct. 4, 1918, in the Bronx, N.Y. He enlisted in the Army on May 13, 1942.

He served in the 131st Field Artillery Battalion, which trained with the 36th Infantry Division in Camp Blanding near Jacksonville and Camp Edwards in Massachusetts before departing from New York to North Africa April 2, 1943.

Ferris landed on Salerno Beach Sept. 9, 1943, during the Allies' invasion of Italy as part of Operation Avalanche.

The machine gunner was wounded by an enemy shell, received first aid, returned to his task and was killed by a second shell fragment a month shy of his 25th birthday.

In addition to posthumously receiving the Purple Heart after being wounded in World War II by hostile enemy action in combat, Ferris posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in combat.

According to Fike's reserch, Ferris is one of only 44 Jewish Americans to receive the cross, the second-highest decoration that can be awarded to a soldier.

"He manned his post. He refused to retreat even with heavy artillery fire coming down on his position," Fike said.

"He saved the lives of many other men and he did that by sacrificing his own life. That's the greatest sacrifice anybody can make, to lay down your life for your friends."

Finding a home

No living family members have been identified. The son of Alexander and Lillian Ferris, he was apparently an only child. Information has not been found on his widow, Esther Ferris.

Ferris' remains, according to Fike's research, were returned to the United States from Paestum where they had been buried on Mount Soprano, and Ferris was buried Nov. 18, 1948, in Long Island National Cemetery.

The local Coast Guard Auxiliary members plan to send the Purple Heart citation and photographs to the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington.

On Monday, Memorial Day, they will present copies of the citation and a photo to the Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library in Cape Coral.

"We thought that would be a nice, fitting gesture to have that here," said Ralph Santillo, the museum's president and founder.

He ordered a Purple Heart medal and Distinguished Service Cross from the U.S. Department of Defense to display with the items recognizing Ferris and his sacrifice.

"We'll have a bugler that'll pay taps," Santillo said. "We'll have a flag folding. It should be very moving."

The Military Order of the Purple Heart Lee County chapter also will participate.

"It's kind of a neat thing that this citation was found," said chapter Commander Jack Wagner.

"It's kind of a perpetual remembrance of what the sacrifice was made by this young man."

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