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A place in his heart

Over 60 years after he was shot in World War II, Saul Gelb of Edwardsville received his Purple Heart at Wegmans in Wilkes-Barre Township Thursday from John Havay of the American Legion Post 12 in Somerville, N.J.

Times leader staff photos/pete g. wilcox

WILKES-BARRE TWP. – It was late 1944 or early 1945 when Sgt. Saul Gelb, hunkered down in a house near the Danube River in Germany, was shot in the left arm. He and a fellow U.S. soldier surveyed the grim situation from upstairs windows.

Cut off from the rest of their 261st Regiment in the 65th Infantry Division, the small band of soldiers was surrounded by units of the German army.

“God, I thought I’d bleed to death,” Gelb recalled on Thursday.

But he lived, and the standoff continued until American fighter planes thundered overhead days later, forcing a German withdrawal.

The soldier who had been with Gelb upstairs wanted him to apply immediately for the Purple Heart, but he was unable to. As the frontlines of World War II progressed toward Berlin and Gelb’s injury healed, the urgency to apply faded and was finally forgotten.

That is until a little more than a month ago, when Gelb’s daughter, Lani Abramson, decided it was time her father got his due.

“It was just all of the sudden,” she explained. “I heard him (discuss) the Purple Heart more (saying) ‘I wish I had it.’”

On Thursday, the Edwardsville resident finally was decorated with the U.S. military medal bestowed upon those injured in combat.

The ceremony was short and unrehearsed, with the pinning of the medal on Gelb’s dark-blue blazer and a disjointed salute between the recipient and the presenters, Mike Sunder and John Havay of the American Legion Post 12 in Somerville, N.J.

Held at a much less hostile locale than the Western Front – the Wegmans food market in Wilkes-Barre Township – the medal presentation attracted a small crowd of family and curious onlookers, who intermittently approached Gelb to ogle his medal and shake his hand. Store manager Keith Grierson personally cut a specially made cake emblazoned with the Purple Heart emblem.

Asked last week to host the event, Grierson said it was a “no-brainer” to allow it because Gelb “and his wife (Jean) are practically in here every day.”

“I’ll say to my wife (in the morning), ‘Where do you want to go?’ She’ll say, ‘You know where I want to go,’” Gelb said.

Whether it was the familiar setting or his personality, Gelb hardly wasted a second without retelling well-worn stories from his four years at war.

“I hated every day of it. I didn’t like the hike all the time. … I was always hungry.”

But he had an idea. He became friendly with the supply sergeant and lied that he had a restaurant back home. “That’s how I got to become a cook. I was never hungry after that.”

The presentation capped several years of work by Gelb’s family to restore his collection of military medals, many of which Gelb lost in the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972. Jeff Isacson, the husband of Gelb’s daughter Gayle, had created a display for the medals, which included two Bronze Stars.

Asked what heroic act he performed to receive the highly prestigious stars, Gelb couldn’t remember.

“I did so many outstanding things. That’s why I’m still here.”


To see more photos from Sgt. Saul Gelb’s Purple Heart ceremony, log on to www.timesleader.com.

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