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Purple Heart is reissued after disappearing 60 years ago

More than 60 years after a Brookhaven man was injured on abloody day in Italy during World War II, his Purple Heart hasfinally found a home.

Lee Newell, 89, was awarded the medal for his actions during theassault on the Gustav Line as Allies tried to drive north throughthe “soft underbelly of the Axis” in March 1944. The medal,however, was lost later that year when Newell was hospitalized foranother injury.

The soldier told his family about the medal but could neverdisplay it or prove its existence. He remained quiet for many yearsabout the events that led to his award.

Dale Newell, Lee Newell’s son, said as he was growing up hisfather “told us just a few details. Not a lot.”

Lee Newell’s daughter, Linda Smith, agreed.

“He didn’t talk about it much when we were coming up, but inlater years he’s talked about it more,” she said.

It has only been in recent years that Newell became interestedin reclaiming his medal, his daughter said.

“I tried and tried and tried to get it, but I was told there wasno record of it,” Lee Newell said. “I wanted it. It was mine. Icouldn’t believe there was no record of it. My son continued topush for it.”

His efforts were rewarded in November, when the documentationwas found. The medal was received in December, Dale Newell said.The family held a party to celebrate.

Lee Newell spoke more openly about his wartime experiencesduring the party, his children said.

“I have a much deeper appreciation and a greater understandingof the sacrifices they made now,” Dale Newell said. “You don’t hearas much about the Italian campaign, but it was just as tough andbloody (as the Allied assault on France).”

After hearing her father talk briefly of the Italian campaign,Linda Smith began reading up on the actions involving his unit, the339th Infantry Regiment of the 85th Army Division.

“I was just absolutely taken aback by all that I read,” shesaid. “I never realized what all they experienced there.

Lee Newell was drafted on his 26th birthday, May 11, 1942. Onhis 28th birthday, he was engaged in his first major battle whenthe Army launched its push on Rome.

The regiment was assigned to the Scauri-Minturno area on thewest coast of Italy. The key hills between the two towns were acombination of fortified hills and ridges: Domenico Ridge, a highrocky ridge overlooking Scauri and Hill 58, northeast of the ridge.Further east was Hill 79, located in the center of theGerman-occupied positions. Northwest of Tremensuoli and beyond awinding creek called Capo d’Acqua stood Hills 69 and 66.

The bare hills belied their true nature, as they were coveredwith thousands of mines, concrete pillboxes and reinforced riflebunkers manned by German troops.

Lee Newell’s unit was assigned to move through the shatteredvillage of Tremensouli and strike Hills 69 and 66. An 81mm mortarman, Newell, a staff sergeant, led a support team to providecovering fire for the men as they assaulted across the stream toattack the hills.

Enemy mortar teams had the crossing zeroed in and the steepbanks of the stream and swiftly moving water bogged down the wadingsoldiers. In the darkness and confusion, men became separated fromtheir commands and only a few soldiers remained to continue theattack once across the stream, now filled with bodies.

The fighting was close and bloody. The 3rd Battalion, of whichthe 339th was a part, lost almost two-thirds of its effectivefighting force within the first 10 hours of the battle and wasunable to take their objective. Later attacks proved moresuccessful. Casualties among the 339th from May 11 to June 6included 240 killed, 709 wounded, 167 missing and 34 takenprisoner.

Lee Newell was wounded when an explosive shell landed nearby,hurtling shrapnel into his right arm.

After the battle, Army medics told him they would have to leavethe shrapnel in his arm but would remove it later if it botheredhim. He returned to his unit three days after being wounded.

“They left it in there, and it was bothering me bad,” hesaid.

He continued to participate in the unit’s advance until theycaptured Rome. Afterwards, he went to the hospital to get theshrapnel removed. His Purple Heart was placed in a duffel bag whilehe was in the hospital, and when he went to check out he wasinformed the bag had been lost.

Dale Newell said his father has told him that although it wasdistressing, the loss of the medal didn’t concern him at thetime.

“When he got out, he was like most of the guys and he justwanted to get home,” Dale Newell said.

To get home, however, they had to win the war. The 339thcontinued to slug its way northward through Italy and ran into theGothic Line, where Lee Newell was awarded the Bronze Star forhelping soldiers overcome a fortified weapons position.

As the unit was preparing for the push on the Po Valley, LeeNewell slipped and fell, injuring his left knee. The injuryprevented him from returning to combat, and he was assigned to asupport position until after the war.

The reissuance of his Purple Heart made him proud, Lee Newellsaid.

“I’m not a hero or nothing, but they let people know you werethere,” he said.

Both medals were framed with his other decorations and a pictureof Lee Newell taken in Rome after its fall. They now hangprominently over the fireplace mantle in his living room. Framedcertificates verifying their authenticity hang beside them.