Joe Hoppe chose not to accept any of the service awards waiting for him when he was honorably discharged from the Navy after World War II. He simply began his new life as a baker and a family man in Chicago.
He didn’t want the awards for serving in the European and Pacific theaters because he believed medals belonged instead to men like his brother and his two best friends who died in the war.
But Monday, 69 years after he left the Navy, the 91-year-old Hoppe received his medals from Sen. Dick Durbin at a Northwest Side assisted living facility where Hoppe lives.
“Now I realize that by not accepting those medals you’re really belittling what these other people have done, to have given the ultimate sacrifice to our country,” said Hoppe, who spoke before a room full of other residents.
“We are the last of the G.I. Joes,” Hoppe said. “There are thousands of us dying every day, but we deserved to be recognized and we deserve to recognize all our fellow veterans. That’s why I am accepting these medals today and I’m sorry I didn’t accept them many years ago.”
Hoppe asked for Durbin’s help in retrieving the medals last year when Durbin attended an event at the Autumn Green center.
“I’ve never run into a more humble man who said: ‘With so many of my friends who lost their lives in World War II, I felt like I didn’t deserve a medal. Well, he did,” Durbin said. It took about six months to obtain the medals.
Hoppe was 17 when he joined the Navy. He and his two best friends made a pact to join the Navy because it was the only branch of the military that took 17-year-olds, as long as they had the permission of their parents.
“I was never really concerned about our country. I think I live in the greatest country in the world. I was concerned about what was going on in other parts of the world,” Hoppe recalled.
Hoppe said he would go to movies and see news clips that showed entire blocks of buildings in London on fire because of German bombing campaigns.
Hoppe, a petty officer first class, was a baker aboard the USS Wichita, a heavy cruiser, and later served aboard an attack transport ship. He received the Navy Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal.
He said his father was reluctant to let him join the Navy.
“My dad served in WWI and had a plate in his head and had seen hand-to-hand combat and he told us: ‘You kids don’t have any idea what you’re getting into,’ ” Hoppe recalled.
His father sent the boys to a veterans hospital in Wisconsin, where they visited a veteran who had no arms or legs.
“It didn’t deter us at all,” said Hoppe, who had a pen pal courtship during the war with his future wife, Charlotte. She died in 2011.
Joe Hoppe and his future wife, Charlotte. | Supplied photo
Hoppe’s daughter, Alison Young, flew in from California to attend the event.
“I was just very happy he had the chance to say what he wanted,” she said. He was concerned the people who served in World War II were being forgotten. I am very proud of him.”
After the event, Durbin took answered several questions.
Durbin described said his relationship with Hillary Clinton after he endorsed Barack Obama instead of her for president in 2007 was “a little testy for a little while, and that’s understandable.
“I think Hillary Clinton would be an extraordinary president,” Durbin said. “I can’t think of anyone better to lead this nation . . . The times for official endorsements will come later.”
Does he see any other Democrat who can challenge Clinton?
“It will be tough, but not impossible. She can’t take anything for granted,” Durbin said. “She has to put together a good campaign and, most importantly, a good strong message about why her selection as president can make a difference.”