By Zach Kukkonen
HOUGHTON - Sixty-one years to the day of his wounding in the Korean War, Atlantic Mine-native Gordon Wiitanen received a letter in the mail from the United States Army.
While he had looked into his qualification for the Purple Heart medal, he was still shocked to open the letter and see a certificate stating Wiitanen would receive a Purple Heart for his service.
"All of the sudden I get a letter from the Army with a certificate authorizing the Purple Heart," Wiitanen, who now lives in Petoskey, Mich., said in a phone interview. "I didn't get the medal set yet ... (but) they said it will be sent in October."
Wiitanen, who is authorized to wear 23 ribbons and has received numerous awards, including the expert entry badge, had not thought about receiving a Purple Heart until recently.
"I had seen stuff in different military publications about similar situations," Wiitanen said. "I saw something in there about Purple Hearts, so I wrote a letter to the Army.
"When I originally left the hospital (in Korea), everything was in turmoil; whoever my commander was didn't put in for the Purple Heart then," he added. "So I wrote a letter and asked if I qualified."
Wiitanen, who also served in World War II and retired as a first sergeant in July of 1966, received his Purple Heart-related wound in Chonan, North Korea, Jan. 20, 1951. While fighting, Wiitanen was shot through the right half of his chest. He was then transported to a field hospital in Tegu, South Korea, to recover. However, Wiitanen was not interested in lying around, waiting to recuperate.
"I just had a bullet hole through the right chest, and there were people at the hospital much worse off than I was," Wiitanen said. "So I left the field hospital against orders, had my arm in a sling ... and ended up getting back to my unit.
"My sergeant said he would take care of me," he continued. "I had my arm in a sling for six weeks, but I survived."
To go with the Purple Heart certificate, Wiitanen was also retroactively awarded the Korean Presidential Unit citation along with a few other medals. Wiitanen also has the Army commendation ribbon, the good conduct medal four times and five battle stars - four from Korea and one from World War II.
While his service technically ended in 1966, he has since fought for veterans and memorials in various ways, locally and in Petoskey. He attended the groundbreaking and dedications for the World War II, Korea and Vietnam memorials in Washington, D.C., and helped the Petoskey High School Class of 1949 get a memorial in Petoskey moved out of a bad traffic area to a more fitting location.
"I collected probably a couple thousand dollars," Wiitanen said. "They made me an honorary member of the Class of 1949, and are having a rededication of the memorial on Memorial Day that I'm attending."
While Wiitanen has moved away from the Copper Country, he still has family in the area and it remains a special place in his heart.
"Atlantic Mine is still my favorite town," he said.