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"Let it be known, that he who wears the Military Order of the Purple Heart has given of his blood in the defense of his homeland, and shall forever be revered by his fellow countrymen."

— George Washington, Aug. 7, 1782

A Purple Heart's journey from a flea market to a fallen soldier's family

The brass medal rested between satin and crushed gold velvet on a junk table at a dusty Orlando flea market.

The seller wanted $10.

Ken Gifford, sales manager for Independence RV in Winter Garden, saw it there one Saturday morning a decade ago when he stopped in on his way to work. He picked it up and ran his fingers over the smooth brass profile of George Washington. He turned it over. Etched on the other side were the words For Military Merit and beneath that, Wallace J. Allen.

Neither the seller nor Gifford knew who Allen was or why he had received a Purple Heart. But, Gifford thought, a Purple Heart didn't belong in a flea market.

"Will you take $5?" he asked.

The man nodded.

Gifford envisioned himself finding the family behind the medal. But he worked 60 to 80 hours a week running his RV sales team. So for several years it sat in the bottom right drawer of his mahogany dresser.

DON MORRIS | Times illustration

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DON MORRIS | Times illustration

Chris Crawford placed the blue leather case embossed with PURPLE HEART on the mantel over the fireplace in his family home in Winter Garden, where it joined photos of his father, who served in the Navy, his two brothers and stepson who served in the Marine Corps, and his niece who served in the Air Force.

Crawford, who worked in the parts department at Independence RV, had promised to help Gifford find the family of Wallace J. Allen.

The Purple Heart is among the oldest military honors awarded. Gen. George Washington wrote that he created the Badge of Military Merit in 1782 "to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers." Three were bestowed during the American Revolution.

The award, given to someone injured or killed by enemy action, has been awarded in the president's name almost 2 million times.

Crawford, 49, began his search for Allen's family about seven years ago with a call to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New Windsor, N.Y., which keeps records of medal recipients.

The organization informed him that a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center had claimed millions of military records, including those identifying Allen. An attempt had been made to recreate some of the records. Allen had served during World War II and been part of the 299th Combat Engineer Battalion. Crawford contacted the battalion, but no one seemed to have any record of Allen's family.

So the medal stayed on the mantel, other pictures eventually cluttering in front of it, until one day last summer when Crawford's mother, Connie, got on the phone with a private investigator from Treasure Island, Lynn-Marie Carty.

DON MORRIS | Times illustration

The women had become friends while supporting Connie's cousin Tommy Zeigler, 71, who has been on death row for 40 years. Connie believed he was innocent of the murders of his wife, in-laws and another man at his Winter Garden furniture store on Christmas Eve 1975, and so did Carty.

Carty mentioned in that phone call that a veteran who supported Donald Trump had given Trump his Purple Heart but she didn't believe the Republican presidential nominee should keep the military honor. That's when Crawford remembered the medal on the mantel.

• • •

DON MORRIS | Times illustration

Carty's boyfriend brought her the cardboard mailer from the post office. She pulled out the leather case and examined the medal. She noticed the rusted pin on the back, the smooth purple and white cloth that ended in the heart-shaped brass, the crest with red stars surrounded by clusters of leaves just above Washington's head. There was no date or place, nothing but Allen's name.

Carty, 59, set it up on the shelf above her computer, next to a shot of a sunken-faced Zeigler in his standard orange prison jumpsuit. Carty had spent the past five years trying to collect evidence to free him.

Now she plugged another name into her computer: Wallace J. Allen.

On ancestry.com, she found entries on two family trees for Allen and his wife, Barbara.

On one was a woman from Pennsylvania named Lorraine Kellogg Bailey, descended from Allen's uncle's family.

Another relative, a doctor in New Mexico named Dianne M. Parrotte, said her mother had been buried with Allen's class ring because he was her "favorite cousin."

Allen's 88-year-old sister, it turned out, lived in St. Petersburg. She'd been young when her brother died. She wasn't sure how the Purple Heart had ended up at a Florida flea market. But she felt it should be returned to Pennsylvania, where he'd grown up.

"I would be honored to have Wallace's medal," Allen's cousin Lorraine Bailey wrote to Carty in an email.

So the private investigator packed up the medal, leaving an empty spot next to the prisoner's picture on her desk.

• • •

DON MORRIS | Times illustration

One afternoon last month, Bailey, 62, eyed the medal in awe.

She had raised eight kids and retired from a job as a high school custodian, and now spends her spare time researching family history. She has traced her father's family back to the 1700s in Pennsylvania and her mother's line to 1600 in England.

"I collect all of it," she said.

DON MORRIS | Times illustration

Bailey is distantly related to Allen, whom everybody called Jimmy. But she knew who he was and had found old articles and oral histories on his battalion's heroics during World War II.

On Feb. 22, 1943, Allen, the 127-pound son of a laborer and a label paster in Binghamton, N.Y., enlisted in the Army. He left behind a wife of two years who would later enlist as a nurse.

He trained for D-Day, known as Operation Overlord, for about a year, learning how to build and blow up bridges, how to crawl on a beach, how to blast through concrete pillars and mine-laced steel crossbeams known as hedgehogs.

At 6:33 a.m. on June 6, 1944, his battalion landed off the coast of Normandy, France, and went ashore on armored bulldozers to clear 50-yard gaps in the underwater obstacles erected by the Germans along wide, sandy Omaha Beach.

Approaching cliffs and bluffs loaded with sharpshooters, many of those in the first wave died, including one-third of Allen's battalion. Allen died the following day from injuries suffered on D-Day. Though his records are gone, family members have heard he was shot. He was 24.

Many of the men who landed at Omaha Beach that day were buried in temporary mass graves there, covered by sand. Somehow Allen's body wound up in England and was buried in a Cambridge cemetery lush with trees and meadows.

From Florida last month, the private investigator arranged for another Zeigler supporter, Vera Holland, to visit his grave, say a prayer and leave behind purple mums.

Allen's family doesn't know how his Purple Heart ended up on a flea market table in central Florida. But after spending time in a dresser drawer, on a mantel, on a desk next to a picture of a death row inmate, it now has a new home.

Bailey opened the Purple Heart case, unveiling the medal, and set it in her glass hutch, just above her grandmother's blue Fenton butter bowl and next to her great-aunt's dark brown tea set. She takes her responsibility as custodian of family history seriously. She calls it her museum of family mementos.

DON MORRIS | Times illustration

Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Leonora LaPeter Anton at lapeter@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8640. Follow @WriterLeonora.

Dozens of Purple Hearts are bought and sold by pawn shops, in estate sales and on eBay and Craigslist. Many of them are fakes, but some of them are real, and collectors can get hundreds of dollars for them. In September, a U.S. Congressman from California introduced a bill that would make selling a Purple Heart illegal. "These medals belong with families or in museums, not on some collector's auction block," said Cook, a U.S. Marine Corps colonel.

A Purple Heart's journey from a flea market to a fallen soldier's family 11/11/16 [Last modified: Friday, November 11, 2016 8:44am]
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