Photo by ERIK KELLAR // Buy this photo
NAPLES — In little more than a week, America will honor its soldiers who have died in military service with Memorial Day.
On Friday, a handful of local patriots celebrated one of the U.S. Navy’s great survivors.
James Powell, 86, was recognized for his recent acquisition of the Purple Heart medal at a ceremony in Naples on Friday hosted by the Big Cypress Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The award is only given to veterans wounded in combat "at the hands of the enemy," according to the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
Powell, a Bonita Springs resident, was injured in combat in 1942 when his ship was sunk by Japanese forces in the Pacific Ocean in World War II.
Historical accounts show that Powell shot down two Japanese planes before the ship went under.
Hanging on to a rescue raft for three days, he survived injuries, dehydration and attacks from tiger sharks before he and others were rescued.
Not everyone was so fortunate. Of the 237 on the U.S.S. Meredith when it was attacked, only 97 survived.
Because documents were lost when the ship sank, due to Powell’s military doctors not filling out paper work and because the veteran was never one to see recognition, Powell did not receive a well-earned Purple Heart for 68 years.
In April, he finally got the medal in the mail, thanks to some pushing from his wife, Catherine, some persistence by Virginia Bailey, a friend and member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and some bureaucratic maneuvering by Eddie Hartnack, of Collier County Veterans Services.
Bailey insisted on Friday’s ceremony to "make it a real award" for Powell.
She invited the Golden Gate High School Color Guard to open the ceremony. The four high school boys reverently carried in rifles, the Florida state flag and Old Glory, while Powell stood up as straight as his old body would allow with right hand saluting the flag.
Bailey recounted the honoree’s story and retired Captain Donald Peacock, now the Collier County Veterans Council Treasurer, presented the medal.
Powell, wearing a sheepish smile and wheeling around his oxygen tank, walked up to accept the award and posed for a few photos before quietly sitting back down.
Retired Sgt. Major Bill Barchers of the Army Special Forces was in attendance for the ceremony. Barchers, who saw combat in the Gulf War and other "special categorical missions," called the Purple Heart a "prestigious honor."
"It deserves a level of respect," said Barchers, who was wearing a number of his own medals on his uniform, but no Purple Heart.
"Every medal is an honor," he said, "but a Purple Heart is special."
Jonathan Artaud, a Golden Gate High School senior and Junior ROTC cadet, was one of the flag bearers in the ceremony. He said he was struck by Powell’s story.
"It’s really amazing what he was able to survive," said Artaud, "But it’s also kind of sad he had to wait so long to be recognized."
After graduating, Artaud plans to enlist in the Air Force, where he hopes to eventually be an engineer, but also serve with the same sense of honor as Powell.
He said, "People like him are what make this country great."