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Brothers get Minnesota World War II medals

Two brothers' military careers were honored Saturday as they received Minnesota World War II medals in a family gathering at Neilson Place.

Jim and John Claypool's medals were bestowed by their nephew, David Claypool, an Army veteran who is a commander with the Minnesota chapter of American Ex-Prisoners of War. David came up from the Twin Cities to make the presentation.

"My uncles were not prisoners of war, but as a commander I can give them these medals and give them congratulations from the work they did during the war," David said, adding that both uncles went on to serve in the Korean War.

The Minnesota World War II Veterans Memorial was officially dedicated June 9 at the State Capitol in St. Paul. The commemorative medals were presented to thousands of veterans who attended the dedication, but "some couldn't make it," David said.

"The state, after all these years, has finally given these soldiers a medal for their service in World War II," he said. "I'm honored that I can do this for my uncles. They're pretty swell guys."

Jim, 82, is a retired high school principal who returned to Bemidji two years ago with his wife, Jean. John, 80, is a longtime Bemidji resident who formerly had a construction company. He is married to Irene.

"We thank you so much and we love you to death," David told his uncles as he presented them with their medals.

"Thank you. But don't love us to death too soon," Jim said with a straight face.

The brothers both have a strong sense of humor. "John hits you from the side and Jim is straight on," David said.

Both enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of 17, Jim in 1942 and John two years later.

Jim was a Navy corpsman who served with the Marines. He sailed on the USS Wainwright. "He saw a lot of action around the Solomon Islands in World War II," David said.

In the Korean War, Jim earned a Purple Heart for wounds sustained on Nov. 27, 1950, during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir while serving with Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Division. A compelling photo by photographer David Douglas Duncan in the Dec. 25, 1950, issue of Time magazine shows Jim riding on the hood of a Jeep shortly after that battle.

John, who served as a Naval armed guard, spent his first year in the military on a Merchant Marine steamer ship, the Mormaclark.

"We were the good-looking bunch," he quipped.

He sailed around the world and pulled into the New York harbor a few days before his 18th birthday.

In the Korean War, he worked in the engine room of the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard.

"I appreciate being recognized," John said.

Family members who are veterans gathered for a photo during the gathering, which drew many relatives. David said about a dozen in the family are veterans, plus four who are active duty.

Work with POWs

David's father, Warren Claypool, who died last year, was a prisoner of war during World War II, held in Stalag Luft IV in northern Poland from May 13, 1944, to Feb. 6, 1945.

His father's experience was a big part of David's volunteer work with POWs, but he also credits his grandmother, the late Cora Claypool.

"She was my personal mentor -- I still ask her advice," he said. "She had three children (Warren, Jim and John) and two grandchildren (Willard and Stanley Groth) all in combat at the same time in World War II, all overseas.

"She was the person responsible that helped them get through the depression when they had a lot of trouble," David continued. "She was also the person that held onto the strength and kept the family going."

David's story begins in England, where his father met his mother.

"I was actually born in England while he was a prisoner of war," David said.

David's mother, Beatrice (who went by her middle name, Brenda) worked in an ammunition factory. She and Warren met shortly after he arrived in England and they began a relationship.

Later, they falsified a general's signature on papers so they could get married. Beatrice was pregnant with David at the time. They were married April 29, 1944, two weeks before Warren's plane was shot down.

"Being Mom was already pregnant with me, it's a good thing it happened that way," David said. "I'd love to have a copy of those papers they falsified."

His mother learned in July that his father was alive. David was born Aug. 28, 1944. Warren sent a postcard while he was in prison camp that said, "I know that I have a son."

"I don't know how he knew he had a son," David said. "Somehow the word got through."

"I work with about 500 of these people," David said about his service to prisoners of war. "They're the most interesting group of people. They're fun, they're together, they're a beautiful bunch of people, and they've all been through some terrible times."

Warren was 25 years old when he and a younger soldier, Gordon Tucker, were among 8,000 POWs marched out of the prison camp on Feb. 6, 1945.

They were not liberated until April 26, after walking 630 miles in what would later be known as the "Black March." Many soldiers lost their lives during the harsh trek.

David said they ate potatoes, cabbage and whatever else they found growing along the way. Finding an onion meant a wonderful meal, his father told him.

"My dad said his grandparents were great naturalists," David said, adding that his father found a small metal pail and picked things all day as he walked.

"Each veteran has his own story," he said. "My dad was a country boy who worked through the depression."