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.
The certificate that accompanied the Bronze Star for sale at the Route 23 antique shop also offered lots of clues, including Cwikowski's Army service number. Carlin has requested the Army records from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, but has not yet received them due to a "big backlog."
Those records will contain more personal information as well as documentation used by the Army to justify awarding the Bronze Star.
"I'm not sure that the average citizen realizes what these medals mean," Carlin said. "To someone other than a veteran, they are just medals." To those who have served in the military, they represent devotion and service to country.
Kaplan's purchase included a card pinned to the medal that advertised a one-day (Sept. 22, 2019) Hunterdon County Antiques Fair in Ringoes, which may indicate it was sold and bought several times.
Kaplan said he does not know how the medal ended up in the possession of an antiques dealer, but said in similar cases, the medals are often separated from families upon the death of a veteran and spouse. He said homes get "cleaned out" and items dispersed.
The medal was awarded for "meritorious achievement in ground operations against the enemy" with the added information of "European Theater of Operations, on or about 19 November 1944."
The certificate was not signed until May 29, 1954. It is not known why the medal was awarded or why 11 years went by before Cwikowski received the medal.
The certificate does not mention Cwikowski's unit in 1944, but does note he was a private when the "achievement" occurred and attained the final rank of private first class.
By November 1944 the Allied forces had advanced across France and most of Belgium on the northern front and were two months into the Battle of Hurtgen Forest in the south of Belgium and into German territory, just north of Luxemburg.
That battle would officially last until Dec. 14, 1944. The following day the Germans launched their counter-offensive, which became known as The Battle of the Bulge.
The fighting in the Hurtgen Forest resulted in 33,000 American casualties and up to 55,000 total casualties, including 9,000 non-combat losses.
Carlin said the package from the personnel center will help pinpoint where Cwikowski was on Nov. 19, 1944 and document the reasons for the medal.
"When I saw it in Hamburg, I couldn't let it get sold to someone as a piece of military memorabilia," Kaplan said. "It's not like a gun or a sword. This was personal; no argument, no dickering. It was worth the cost to get it back to the family."
The Bronze Star
The Bronze Star medal was first awarded by the U.S. military in early 1944, but was available for military members dating to Dec. 7, 1941.
The Bronze Star was awarded in the following conflicts: World War II (395,380), Korean War (30,359), Vietnam War (719,969). Of the medals 549,343 were awarded for achievement and service and 170,626 for valor.
The valor medals are marked with a "V."