MANCHESTER — A World War II veteran from Manchester is getting his dying wish — a Purple Heart Award, to be presented at a ceremony in his honor more than seven decades after he was injured.
Francis Byrne, 94, of Manchester, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943 at the age of 18. He saw his first combat on Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day a year later, and was injured in the line of duty in Belgium when he was hit by shrapnel from a German land mine.
His story was featured recently in the New Hampshire Union Leader after doctors diagnosed him with kidney and bladder cancer, giving him four months to live. Byrne said he was worried he would never see the award occupy “that empty space” in a display case in his apartment on Front Street.
Then the phone rang Thursday, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, gave him the news he had waited years to hear.
“She said, ‘You’re getting your Purple Heart,” said Byrne. “I started shaking ... I was so emotional. I didn’t think I would live to see the day. I got off the phone, and I couldn’t call anyone for 20 minutes to tell them about it, I was so emotional.”
“I think he was surprised when I told him,” said Shaheen. “He sounded relieved and overwhelmed. I think he truly didn’t know if he would ever see this day.”
Shaheen said she called Byrne Thursday after speaking with Secretary of the Army Mark Esper, who confirmed the good news.
“I spoke with Secretary Esper directly, and explained to him Mr. Byrne is a World War II hero, a member of the Greatest Generation, and he deserves this honor,” she said.
She added: “This Purple Heart is invaluable to Mr. Byrne and his family, and I so look forward to seeing him presented with it in the near future.”
Shaheen said while no specific date has been set for the Purple Heart ceremony, she hopes it will be a matter of “days, not weeks” and is working with Byrne’s family to schedule the ceremony.
Byrne was assigned to an anti-aircraft battalion and his primary duty was as a cook, according to a report by the Department of Veteran Affairs.
He was in the fifth wave to hit the beach at Omaha, he said. A display case on his wall includes medals for D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Combat Service, Army Good Conduct, World War II Victory and the French Croix de Guerre.
In the middle is an empty spot where he plans to hang a Purple Heart, the combat decoration awarded to those injured at the hands of the enemy.
“I can’t wait to see it there,” said Byrne.
Byrne said he was injured in the fall of 1944 while approaching a cornfield in Belgium. A fellow soldier stepped on a landmine, and the force of the blast sent Byrne to the ground.
Byrne told a medic to work on the soldier who triggered the mine. He limped for the rest of the day, and first looked at his leg that night. His lieutenant promised to fill out paperwork, but he died the following day.
The pain went away after a couple of hours, and Byrne kept on fighting. He was discharged in 1945 and worked for years as a construction supervisor in Massachusetts. He retired and moved to New Hampshire.
In 2000, he started complaining about pain in his legs, according to his disability determination by the Department of Veteran Affairs. According to the report, a VA physician attributed the pain to nerve damage. Byrne told the doctor of the shrapnel wound to his shin, but there was no scarring and no evidence of an entrance wound.
In 2006, an X-ray detected a 6 millimeter metallic object in his ankle; where it had slowly migrated over the years, the doctor wrote.
Byrne said he is overwhelmed with the support he has received from friends, government officials — even strangers — in the days since his story appeared in local media.
“I am so thankful for all the help everyone has given me with this,” said Byrne. “This wouldn’t have happened without everyone working on it — writing letters, making phone calls. I can’t tell you how much this means to me. I can’t find the words.”