There wasn’t a dry eye in the house during the early evening of August 7, when “Eight on Seven,” a Purple Heart Day event, was hosted at the New York City Fire Museum on Spring Street in Manhattan. Decades after the deaths of eight servicemen (one who fought in Vietnam and others who fought in WWII,) the Purple Heart Medals they had earned that somehow had been lost were “brought home” to their families.
Most family members who attended the event did not know the entire story behind each loved one receiving a Purple Heart. Joyce Bailey and her brother David Algranti, who live in California, did not know that Private First Class John M. Efstis, had even received this high honor for his military service. They had never met their uncle, from New Jersey, who died in 1943. They had, however, grown up knowing about the absence his loss had left in their mother and grandmother’s hearts. “They were always waiting for him to come home,” said Ms. Bailey. Wartime news was classified, and it took decades before the public knew over 1,000 troops lost their lives when the British troop transport ship HMT Rohna was attacked and destroyed by German aircraft. PFC Efstis was among those tragically lost.
Although the family eventually learned in the 1940’s about how Efstis had died, the story about his Purple Heart medal only emerged in the months after March 2019 when the medal was found outside Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport, La, and handed over to a volunteer at the information desk. Once turned over to the medical center, the medal was shared with a member of the public affairs staff.
The Purple Heart was discussed with Associate Director Zachary Sage, who immediately understood the prominence of this discovery. “I placed the medal for safekeeping in the medical center safe,” and thus the journey home.
Sage and others consulted with Purple Hearts Reunited after a discussion with the commander of Louisiana’s Military Order of the Purple Heart. Major Zachary Fike, founder of Purple Hearts Reunited, shared emotional information about the medal.
Fike is a 21-year Army Veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fike is untiring in his commitment to locating families of Purple Heart recipients and reuniting lost Purple Heart medals to families. He said he receives about 300 medals a year that are found in storage boxes, in police raids, and antique shops and delivered to his organization. Mr. Algranti received a message that Major Fike had called him regarding his uncle’s medal, and although concerned that “this might be a scam,” he was reassured by Major Fike that indeed his uncle’s Purple Heart medal had been found. Plans then were made to come to the NYC event. American Airlines donated the plane tickets for relatives involved in the Purple Hearts Reunited event. The stories of the Purple Heart recipients were read as if the Veteran had come back to tell their story.
Johnny would be proud today, and so would be the seven other Veterans recognized during the evening ceremony. Johnny knows he is not forgotten.
Claudie Benjamin, a public affairs officer at the VA New York Harbor Health Care System, and Shreveport VA Public Affairs Officer Shannon Arledge collaborated to cover this story.