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WWII Veteran Surprised With Purple Heart 70 Years Later

Staff Sgt. Fred Zurbucken received a Purple Heart Thursday, 70 years after he was injured during World War II.
Posted at 1:12 PM, Sep 19, 2014

A World War II veteran was finally awarded a Purple Heart Thursday after earning it 70 years ago. And the whole ceremony was one big surprise.

CHRIS HENRY VIA WLUK: "It is our honor to present to you a Purple Heart."

STAFF SGT. FRED ZURBUCHEN VIA THENORTHWESTERN.COM: "Never dreamed this would happen. I can't say the words. I have no words for it; it's just unbelievable."

But here's the interesting part of this story: Staff Sgt. Fred Zurbuchen didn't know he'd be receiving the medal. 

He just thought he and his family were taking a tour of the EAA AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which features historic planes. (Video via YouTube / Oshkosh Rocks!)

When he was just 17 years old, Zurbuchen enlisted and became a B-17 gunner in the Air Force.

He flew in part of a plane called a ball turret, similar to the one featured in this photograph. His job as the gunner was to stay inside that circular pod and fire at any encroaching enemies.

In 1944, Zurbuchen was injured while on his 10th mission. The Purple Heart is given to members of the U.S. military who are wounded in combat at the hands of the enemy.

But a fire destroyed Zurbuchen's paperwork, and he was never awarded the honor.

ZURBUCHEN VIA WLUK: "It's just something that you earned and something you should get."

Earlier this year, TheNorthwestern.com reports Zurbuchen met Chris Henry from the museum, and it was Henry who became determined to get the veteran his Purple Heart. With the help of Zurbuchen's family and the U.S. Army, Henry made it happen.

The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor estimates around 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded to wounded military members and their families. This is just an estimate, as no official record has ever been kept.

According to a piece written for the National Archives's Prologue magazine, the Purple Heart is "the oldest U.S. military decoration" and that before Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, the award could not be given out to any service member who had already died.

Zurbuchen is the only remaining member of the crew he worked with during World War II.

This video includes images from Mr.Z-man / CC BY SA 3.0 and Imperial War Museums.