R.I.P. Donald Helfer.
We often see stories of valor, bravery, and medal ceremonies for members of the armed forces, on television and on the news, past or present. It is an accepted fact that bravery must be rewarded, and the recipient should be praised. Rightfully so, as the difficult actions of heroes have carved the world we live in and the freedoms we enjoy, and that should be celebrated. However, not all heroes consider themselves one, or want to be praised.
This was true for U.S. Navy veteran Donald Helfer.
Helfer fought during WWII, where he flew 28 hazardous missions over enemy territory. During his service, he became a highly decorated servicemember, which he kept a secret from everyone, including his own children.
He was awarded the Navy Flying Cross and a Bronze Star. In addition to this, he also received a letter from U.S. President Harry Truman, who offered the “heartfelt thanks of a grateful nation” for his service and referred to him as “one of the nation’s finest.”
This amount of decoration is incredible to most people, who would be proud to be recognized for their actions. Not Helfer, though, who kept this action-packed part of his life to himself.
Later in life, Helfer worked as a police officer in upstate New York, which he was still doing when he died in 1993. His children knew he served in the U.S. Navy during WWII, but they were completely in the dark about his wartime activities.
Donald Helfer’s secret wartime experiences are revealed
After his death, his wartime medals and documents went missing, not that this was known at the time. In a case of incredibly slim odds, someone recently found a WWII identification card, Navy ribbons, pins, and other documents — all belonging to none other than Donald Helfer.
Where were these rare items found? Well, in a trash bin in Hickory, North Carolina.
Recognizing their potential significance, the discoverer of these relics thankfully passed them on to Jeff Truitt of the American Legion Post 544 in Hickory, in the hopes that he could return them to Helfer’s family.
With the use of Facebook, followers quickly discovered Helfer’s death notice, which revealed he was a police officer in New York with four children, and had died in 1993 from cancer at the age of 69. After discovering the Helfer family, Truitt arranged to meet them to present the items, which came as a big shock.
“There’s so many unanswered questions,” Scheid said. “We knew very little about his time in the service,” She added.
Scheid said that her parents divorced when she was 10, and that contact with her father reduced when he moved away. The discovered items have helped the children fill in some of the blanks about their father’s life.
“Just to hold something that was his — something that was part of who he was before I knew him, obviously — but something that contributed to who he was, the man that he was [is meaningful]” Scheid said.
The family is, however, confused by how Helfer’s possessions found themselves in North Carolina, with Scheid saying, “Both of my sisters and my brother are like, how the heck did any of that get to North Carolina? I don’t know.”
One idea is that they may have got there via Helfer’s second wife, who moved to Hickory at some point.
This incredible story of chance has enabled a family to know more about their father, but it also shows that not everyone wants to be praised for what they did.
In fact, its common for veterans to refuse to admit that they are heroes, often referring to those they served with as the true heroes. Similarly, many recipients of the highest military awards like the Medal of Honor often claim the medal is a heavy burden, and that they feel unworthy of such a prestigious decoration.