Donald Diederich knew he had earned medals in World War II. But he never thought he would see them.
That changed Tuesday afternoon at the Stark County Courthouse when Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., presented the 90-year-old Army veteran from Watford City with five medals, including a bronze star, for his service in the South Pacific during World War II.
“It means a lot. I really didn’t think it would mean that much,” Diederich said. “After so many years, I just kind of forgot about it. I always thought they would come, but I never got them.”
Hoeven said it is important that veterans like Diederich, whom he called a “great American,” are recognized for their sacrifices.
“It’s so important,” said Hoeven, who joked with Diederich and asked him to share stories about the war to a small group of friends, family and veterans who gathered in the basement of the courthouse.
“Whenever we can, we try and find veterans who didn’t get their medals and get them to them when they can still have them and appreciate them. It’s so meaningful to the families too.”
The Department of Veteran Affairs estimates nearly 1,000 World War II veterans die each day.
Hoeven awarded Diederich what he called “long overdue” medals. For his service, Diederich earned the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal, the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with Bronze Star and the Honorable Service lapel button.
“He’s obviously very appreciative and humble,” said Jerry Samuelson, the McKenzie County veteran services officer who was the North Dakota American Legion’s state commander from 2009-10.
Diederich, a native of Wahpeton who spent much of his life living in Minot, was a technical sergeant who served from April 1943 to January 1946. Despite being an Army man, he served as a winch operator unloading Navy ships at sea and shore.
In 1944, his ship was attacked at Leyte Island by Japanese suicide bombers and was sunk. However, Diederich stayed with the ship to help recover wounded soldiers, fight fires and was part of a three-man party who returned to the incapacitated ship during battle to retrieve orders and sensitive paper documents as kamikaze pilots continued to hone in on the ship.
He said he wishes that more of his fellow World War II veterans would be able to receive the medals they earned.
“This is really wonderful,” Diederich said. “Gosh, I didn’t expect to have anything like this.”