Purple Hearts Reunited

Chattanooga veterans finally recognized for meritious service in World War II with OLPH ceremony

By Emily Booker

Veterans Day had a different feel this year for Jim Dorris and Bo Cline.

After 70 years, the parishioners of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Chattanooga officially received the Purple Heart medals they earned for their service in World War II.

The Diocese of Knoxville veterans recounted their harrowing stories that led to their medals, given for being injured in the line of duty.

Pfc. Jim Dorris served in the Army in Company A, 222nd Regiment of the 42nd (Rainbow) Infantry Division. One of its first deployments in Europe was to the French village of Ingelheim. The soldiers were told the area had been quiet for over a week. However, the Germans attacked that first night.

“They came in with tanks and infantrymen,” Mr. Dorris said. “We had a big battle. A couple of our men were killed. So that was in the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge.”

For the next several weeks, Mr. Dorris was engaged in battle. His injury came in March 1945.

“A tank was shooting at us, and one of their shells hit the tree I was under,” Mr. Dorris recalled. “Shrapnel went everywhere. I got some of it in my leg. I spent nine or 10 days in the hospital, then I was sent back to my company. We moved on.” Once back in the United States, Mr. Dorris would receive a Purple Heart for the injury to his leg. But it would still be months before he could return home.

The 42nd Division moved east. By late April 1945, it was headed toward Munich.

Pfc. Dorris’ division received orders to sidetrack and relieve the captured at a concentration camp — Dachau.

“When we first got to the camp, they had about a 12-foot concrete wall around it,” Mr. Dorris recalled. “Just outside that wall were 40 boxcars of prisoners who had been taken from other camps and sent to Dachau.”

The prisoners had been packed into the boxcars for days and were dying of suffocation and starvation. As the guards had fled the camps, they had opened the boxcar doors and shot the survivors.

Inside the camp, Pfc. Dorris was assigned to watch the area between the concrete wall and the wire fence.

Hundreds of bodies were piled up outside the barracks and crematories.

“Seeing all this, I thought I must be in hell,” Mr. Dorris said. “But I don’t know when I died. It just seemed like it was so much. I stood there and looked up in the sky and said, ‘God, get me out of this place.’ I just felt like I couldn’t stand it, seeing any more.”

A prisoner came by and asked Mr. Dorris if he had a cigarette, and he answered no. The prisoner left, then returned shortly with a small, rusty can with a small cigarette butt inside, Mr. Dorris recalled.

“He gave me that cigarette butt and said, ‘Thanks for liberating us.’ Well, that brought tears to my eyes. I shook his hand, and I thought, God answered my prayer, because I was just desperate to that point and then this man gave me that cigarette butt and I felt completely different. I felt I’m doing some good here.”

The next morning, Pfc. Dorris’ division moved on to Munich and occupied the city for several weeks.

Back stateside, Mr. Dorris was in the process of discharge. One morning, the men were called to the auditorium for an award presentation. Mr. Dorris recalled hearing the announcement for Pfc. James Dornis.

“I looked around. Who’s Dornis?” he said. “I thought he must be talking about me. I went up there, and he gave me my Purple Heart, but instead of Dorris, it had Dornis on it.” However, Mr. Dorris kept his medal with the misspelling for the next seven decades.

It was the day before Christmas Eve 1944 when 2nd Lt. Earl “Bo” Cline’s plane was shot down over Germany. He was serving as a navigator and bombardier on a B-26 with the 574th Bomber Squadron, 391st Bomber Group of the Army Air Corps.

Fog and snow had prevented planes from going up for several days. Both Mr. Cline and Mr. Dorris recalled that it was severely cold and overcast that December.

When the weather finally cleared, the Allies filled the skies with bombers headed toward Germany.

“Bo and his friends would be flying over us,” Mr. Dorris said. “The whole sky was full. Far as you can see, nothing but airplanes.”

“We put everything in the air we had,” Mr. Cline said. “We had a target called Ahrweiler, Germany. We were after a couple of bridges there on which the Germans were bringing supplies and fuel.”

German fighter planes engaged the Allied bombers. Mr. Cline’s plane was one of the first to get hit. He was in the nose of the plane and had to climb behind the copilot’s seat in order to reach his parachute.

“Our starboard engine was on fire, and (the pilot) was having trouble holding the plane,” Mr. Cline recalled. “We were out of formation.”

The pilot told him to get out.

“So I grabbed my rosary in one hand and got the ‘chute in the other hand, and I just dove out the bomb bay door.” Two of the six men in the plane died.

Cline landed 4,000 feet below on a railroad track. He had hoped to run toward a nearby forest, but he hurt his knee in the landing. German soldiers ran up the track. From then on, Cline was a prisoner of war.

He was kept in a local hospital for a few days while nurses bandaged his swollen knee. He was then taken to Oberursel, an interrogation center. After three days of interrogation, he was put on a boxcar with other Army Air Corps POWs and sent to Stalag Luft One, 90 miles north of Berlin.

“When I got there, the pilot was already there,” Mr. Cline said. “He’d been coming out to the gate when they brought in new prisoners looking for me. He said when I came in that he could hardly recognize me because I had a beard and my hair was frozen. It was cold. It was awful cold.

“The biggest problem there was food,” he said. “We didn’t get much of it.” There was also no heat in the camp along the Baltic Sea. The men would stand outside for three hours every day being counted.

Cline would remain in the prison camp for seven months — until it was liberated by the Russian Army.

Upon returning home, Cline learned he had earned the Purple Heart for injuries sustained when his plane was hit.

The medal was mailed to him with a note saying that it would formally be awarded at some point. But the ceremony never came. That is, until this year.

Mr. Dorris decided that it was far past time to correct the error on his medal.

“I thought, I’m 90 years old now. I don’t want my Purple Heart with ‘Dornis’ on it.”

So he contacted Capt. Zachariah Fike at Purple Hearts Reunited to see if it could be fixed.

Purple Hearts Reunited is an organization that collects lost military medals and returns them to their owners or next of kin. The organization was founded by Captain Fike, who earned a Purple Heart in Afghanistan in 2010. When possible, he travels to personally deliver the medals.

Captain Fike arranged for Dorris to receive his Purple Heart, this time with the name spelled correctly, at the Dorris home. Family and friends attended the ceremony, including Bo Cline.

It was there that Cline mentioned that his Purple Heart had been mailed to him, but was never officially presented. Fike promised to return in a couple of weeks to award Cline his Purple Heart.

On Aug. 28 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Cline received his Purple Heart in front of a crowd of about 45 friends and family. He said he was touched by the seriousness of the ceremony, in which he was saluted and thanked for his service on behalf of the country and the president.

Along with his Purple Heart, Dorris intends for his story to be passed on for generations. He recently wrote a short book recounting his experiences called My View of World War II. “I want something to leave my children and grandchildren,” he said.

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