SCDC committee member Harry Kaplan saw this endeavor as more than a good deed, it was a mission that he needed to complete for a fellow service member. He contacted a number of American Legion posts in New Jersey, Congressman Josh Gottheimer, and historian Wayne McCabe in the hopes they would help him find the medal's original owner or family.
Harry Kaplan first saw the Bronze Star medal with its red and blue striped ribbon in an antique shop on Route 23 in Hamburg last spring.
He couldn't believe the military medal historically awarded to war heroes was for sale "as a piece of military memorabilia." It was paired with its accompanying yellowed-around-the-edges certificate dated "on or about 19 November 1944" in its original black and gold frame.
"As a veteran, I could not allow this to happen," said Kaplan, 73, the commander of American Legion Post 86 in Newton. "As far as I'm concerned, as a veteran, nobody has a right to own this medal. It belongs to the family."
He bought it for $100. Not to have, he said, but to be its "custodian" until he could reunite it with the family of the recipient — Pvt. John M. Cwikowski.
After an extensive search involving a private investigator, the medal's journey to be reunited with the recipient's family is almost over.
A family member was located in Florida, Kaplan said, and has agreed to accept the medal during a not-yet scheduled ceremony.
"Medals get separated from families all the time for various reasons," Kaplan said. "This medal is going home. My mission is accomplished."
The search for family
Shortly after he "took custody" of the medal, Kaplan contacted a number of American Legion posts in New Jersey, his congressman and historian Wayne McCabe in the hopes they would help him find the medal's original owner or family. McCabe put him in touch with Jim Carlin, a retired police officer working as a private investigator.
Carlin, who comes from a family of veterans, also volunteers his services to help reconnect military families to loved ones' medals and honors.
That specialty began a few years ago when Carlin's daughter, an Army nurse major, found military medals, including Purple Hearts, in a trash can in the basement of the house she was remodeling. He was able to reunite most of the medals with family members.
One of the medals, complete with a yellowed copy of the telegram sent to the WWII sailor's wife, is now on display at the Newark American Legion Post 152 since no family members were found.
Carlin, who found Cwikowski's relative in Florida, was able to learn some important facts about the veteran through his search, including his death at age 72 in 1994. He had been a lifelong resident of Clifton, where Kaplan also grew up.
Cwikowski was born Jan. 28, 1924 and died Jan. 15, 1994 according to Social Security records. He was the son of John and Josephine (Pawelek) Cwikowski, immigrants from Poland, according to a 1967 obituary published in The Herald-News reporting the elder John's death at age 71.