As 59 Purple Heart recipients walked across the ballroom of the Wilmington Convention Center on Sunday night, there was virtually no sign of a limp in George Fox, his leg long healed from the injury he sustained in World War II as a tank driver during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
“A piece of my femur was knocked right out,” he said. “They took me on a hospital ship. The doctor looked me over and they knocked me out. When I woke up, I was in a cast from my chest down to my left foot and my right knee. I thought I was going to lose my leg, but they saved it. I was really lucky.”
Their numbers dwindling as the conflict fades into history, Fox was one of just five WWII veterans at the Second Annual Cape Fear Purple Heart Dinner, joined by Robert Bradicich, Arthur Kenan, Charles H. Kroger and Meyer Melman. The event, presented by the Cape Fear Purple Heart Committee, honored Purple Heart recipients and their families.
Fox joined the Marine Corps immediately after graduating high school in 1940.
“I didn’t know what to do with my life,” he said. “I was in for five years, four months and two days.”
Fox began his Marine Corps career as a truck driver and chauffeur at the Norfolk Navy Yard, now called the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.
“I was a chauffeur for a colonel. I did that kind of work for a couple of years. I had a cushy job,” he said.
In 1942, Fox told his superiors he wanted to go into combat. After being stationed at a base camp in Maui, Hawaii, he fought in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands and in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
As a tank driver in the 4th Marine Division, Fox’s primary responsibility was to rescue injured marines.
“We put the wounded marines on the back so we could take them back to the beach,” he explained.
On Fox’s fifth day on the island, his tank was hit by Japanese mortar fire, injuring him severely.
Fox spent several months in a hospital in Hawaii before being transferred to Saint Albans Naval Hospital, now called St. Albans Extended Care Facility, in Long Island, New York.
“I went there because I’m from New York and I had family near there,” he said.
Fox was hospitalized for a total of nine months.
After being discharged from the hospital, Fox attended Pace Institute, now known as Pace College, and studied accounting.
Bill Ebersbach, commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart Cape Fear Chapter 636, received three Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam.
Ebersbach enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1964.
“I’m still a marine today — once and always,” he said. “I was in Vietnam for almost four years. I did two tours.”
Ebersbach received his first Purple Heart as a rifleman when his right hand was wounded by shrapnel. After receiving treatment at the military hospital in Da Nang, he returned to combat and received a second Purple Heart following another shrapnel wound in his back.
In 1971, Ebersbach returned to Vietnam as an air traffic controller. While volunteering to fly with gunners on his day off, the helicopter he rode in was under fire. He earned his third Purple Heart and returned to the hospital in Da Nang.
Ebersbach’s Marine Corps career spanned 10 years.
His advice to young marines is, “Keep your head down. Work hard, and listen to the corporals and the sergeants because they’re the ones that know.”
National Guard veteran Kyle Snyder earned his Purple Heart in Afghanistan in October 2012.
“We were out on a patrol and I was approached by a local wearing a suicide vest, which he detonated, killing three soldiers I was with. One was Sergeant T.J. Butler from Leland, a close friend of mine,” he said. “I’ve spend two-and-a-half years recovering. I’m still going through surgeries.”
Snyder’s advice to anyone considering joining the military is, “Follow your heart. I don’t discourage anybody from joining. If you’re old enough to make the decision to go in, you’re old enough to understand the possibility of being deployed.”
Snyder said that he wants future generations to know the war wasn’t senseless and that he and his fellow service members had a purpose.
“If I could today, I’d go back over. This dinner means a lot to me,” he said.
Chuck McLiverty, co-chair of the Cape Fear Purple Heart Dinner Committee, estimates nearly 500 people attended the dinner this year.
“It went very well. A lot of people were happy with it — I didn’t hear any complaints, which is always a good sign,” he said. “Everybody who participates on this committee is a volunteer. They’re from different organizations and different walks of life. Everybody just donates their time and comes together.”
McLiverty encourages young Purple Heart veterans to attend the dinner each year and receive recognition for their service.