GRAND HAVEN, Mich. — A Purple Heart was given posthumously to Charles A. Conklin on Friday—a World War I veteran who grew up in Grand Haven and became the namesake of one of West Michigan's largest American Legion posts.
It took a long and unexpected journey for the post to get here.
The story of how Conklin ended up with the honor started about three and a half years ago, when Dr. Chris Petras began working at Grand Haven's Charles A. Conklin American Legion Post 28.
“If someone would have said to me 10 years ago, Chris, 10 years from now, you're going to discover a document that's going to lead to the Purple Heart eligibility for the namesake of the largest American Legion post in Michigan, I would have said, 'You're dreaming,'” Dr. Petras said during the ceremony Friday morning.
The post members had gathered to discuss what they might do for their 100-year anniversary. Dr. Petras began the task of researching their namesake.
“To begin with, Charles was born in August of 1895," he told the crowd.
“Charles, as a student and an individual, was quite exceptional. He excelled in baseball, and played shortstop for the Grand Haven High School baseball team... But what was really interesting is that Charles also excelled in art, drawing, in graphic arts.”
Born in Cook County, Illinois, Charles moved with his family to Grand Haven in 1903.
He would be drafted by the National Guard in 1917—beginning his training in Ohio and later moving to New York.
“So he gets to New York, and he's there, he finishes his training and then on Halloween, of all days, October 31, 1917... Conklin and his comrades board this ship to head to France,” Dr. Petras said.
Dr. Petras would eventually complete both a book and a documentary on Conklin, all as a result of his research into American Legion Post 28.
"Until around April of 1918, they saw very little combat action, and it wasn't until the German spring offensive occurred, the third round of it, that Conklin saw serious combat action.”
Conklin would die from injuries he received on the front lines in Baccarat, France.
Through his research, Dr. Petras was surprised to realize that Conklin had never been honored with a Purple Heart.
In his quest to find out why, he found out that there had been a warehouse fire near St. Louis in 1973, in which a huge number of military personnel documents were destroyed—many of them from the World War I era.
Once he discovered this, Dr. Petras reached out to Congressman Bill Huizenga to see if he could make a request for the Purple Heart.
“So Congressman Huizenga reaches out again to the U.S. Army and says, 'In light of this, can we reconsider?' And they say, 'Yes, he is eligible for the Purple Heart.' And that is how we ended up here today,” Dr. Petras explained Friday.
Representative Huizenga was in attendance Friday and presented the Purple Heart in honor of Conklin's ultimate sacrifice.
“I’m so pleased to be a small part of this..." Representative Huizenga said.
"And on behalf of the U.S. government, I want to say 'congratulations' and 'thank you.' And as we honor Charles Conklin, I want to present this on behalf of the United States to Charles.”