CASS LAKE (AP) -- Nearly 50 years after he died as a Chinese prisoner of war during the Korean War, Sgt. Ernest Robinson has been awarded his Purple Heart.
During the Memorial Day powwow at the Leech Lake Veterans' Memorial Powwow Grounds, Army Brig. Gen. Gary LeBlanc presented Robinson's family with his Purple Heart, seven other medals and a U.S. flag -- honors Robinson never received because of military policies and bureaucratic snags.
''I spent 46 years as a soldier. One of the principles of the military is we take care of our own,'' said retired Army Gen. John W. Vessey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the man responsible for getting Ernest's medals.
''Every now and then, it may look like we don't, but by and large, we do. We ask them to do extraordinary things for the country, and we should take care of them and their families.''
''It's ... one of the greatest days we've had in a long time,'' said Ernest's younger brother, Albert Robinson Jr., who spearheaded getting him recognized. ''We've been fighting for the Purple Heart for a long time.''
Ernest, an enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of Chippewa, enlisted in the U.S. Army on March 8, 1949, and was shipped off to Korea. Attached to the 2nd Infantry Division, 82 AAA Battalion, Battery D, much of Ernest's first year was spent in heavy conflict with the North Koreans, who were supported by China during the war.
Because of the fighting, Ernest wrote home sparingly.
''We got surrounded by the Reds here two weeks ago. We lost a lot of track & men. We lost half of our Battery. That the reason I haven't been writing,'' he wrote in a Dec. 21, 1950, letter scrawled on American Red Cross letterhead. ''Just the 2nd Inf Div lost 1,300 men in a road block.''
Less than two months later, about Feb. 12, 1951, Ernest was captured near Hoeng Song, North Korea. A week later, he wrote a letter to his mother to assure her of his safety: ''Dearest Mother, Just a few lines to you to let you know that I am OK. And a P.W. of the Chinese so don't worry about me. And they are feeding OK. And treating us fine to. Tell the folks Hello for me and not to worry to much. Love, your son, Ernie.''
It was the last letter he wrote home. He died sometime during March 1951 on a forced march from his point of capture to a prison camp called ''Bean Camp.''
For years, Ernest's family felt he deserved a Purple Heart for dying in enemy hands.
In 1946, however, the U.S. Department of Defense determined that POWs who were beaten, shot or killed by the enemy weren't entitled to the Purple Heart because those actions were classified as war crimes and therefore were non-battle injuries. At the time, the Purple Heart was given only to soldiers sustaining battlefield injuries.
That policy was changed in 1962 because of the Vietnam War. The policy was amended so that POWs injured by the enemy after April 25, 1962, were considered eligible for the Purple Heart.
Under the new policy, Ernest's only sister, Margaret Robinson of Cass Lake, tried getting the Army to award Ernest a Purple Heart early in 1992. Although the Army's National Service Officer of the Military Order of the Purple Heart denied him, he did award him the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Korean Service medal and the Prisoner of War medal.
''They shipped them parcel post,'' Albert Robinson said. ''That's a hell of way to be presented a prisoner of war medal for a guy that gave his life for his country.''
He said after they received the three medals they gave up their fight until 1999. On March 31, 1999, three U.S. soldiers serving on a United Nations peacekeeping mission near the Macedonia border were captured and held as prisoners in Yugoslavia for about a month. After the soldiers were released, they were eligible for the Purple Heart.
This, Albert Robinson said, was incomprehensible. ''That's what got us involved, again, was in (Kosovo) people were captured and they got a couple of black eyes and a hero's welcome and received the Purple Heart,'' he said. ''Our brother died in captivity and received nothing.''
Early in 1999, Albert renewed his drive. He turned to a family friend, Laporte Schools Superintendent Ted Bogda, a former marine and a member of the Leech Lake Reservation Veterans Memorial Honor Guard.
Bogda contacted the offices of Sens. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., both of whom informed him that, as of 1996, the policies regarding the Purple Heart had changed and applied the 1962 POW ruling retroactively to all POWs, meaning Ernest Robinson now qualified.
In October, Bogda contacted Vessey, who now lives in Garrison and occasionally helps families investigate whether their loved ones didn't get honors they deserved.
Vessey contacted current Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John M. Keane and an investigation began. A few months slid by and Vessey wrote Bogda to inform him Robinson's records had been long since retired, but the bureaucracy slowly was working and Robinson's medals were being requisitioned.
On May 1, he wrote Bogda again telling him the Purple Heart was approved.
''Sgt. Robinson was one of those who got lost. And I'm disappointed that he did. As a longtime member of the Army, it's embarrassing for me personally, and for the Army,'' he said, ''that we had a soldier that lost his life defending this country that didn't get recognized.''
There to receive his Purple Heart were his siblings -- Albert Jr., Richard Sr. and Margaret of Cass Lake; Robert of Monticello; and Dennis of Cloquet -- who felt all along that he deserved it.
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