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A U.S. Navy veteran who served as a steward during World War II and the Korean War and whose service was segregated from other sailors received a posthumous tribute Monday morning in Elizabethtown.
U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie awarded 15 service medals to the daughter and son-in-law of Jesus Arriola Leon Guerrero, a native of Guam who served 20 years in the U.S. Navy, from 1937 to 1957, and died in 1991.
The sailor statue at the Hardin County Veterans Tribute in the Elizabethtown Nature Park served as the backdrop for the ceremony, which included a small audience full of local and state officials who came to pay their respects.
State Rep. Tim Moore, R-Elizabethtown, congratulated Guerrero’s daughter, Elizabeth Meilicke, on correcting her father’s record while Hardin County Magistrate E.G. Thompson greeted her with a smile.
“I share in your joy,” Thompson told her.
Guthrie, a U.S. Army veteran, said occasionally veterans are not adequately recognized for their service and the proper medals are not awarded in a timely manner, but he takes pleasure in helping those veterans and their families find closure by righting the wrongs of the past. He noted opportunities he has had to award deserving veterans Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts.
Guerrero was posthumously awarded the Combat Action Ribbon, the Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon with Bronze Star, Navy Good Conduct Medal with Silver Star, World War II Victory Medal, American Defense Service Medal with Fleet Clasp, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic Pacific Medal with two Silver Stars and four Bronze Stars, Navy Occupation Service Medal with Asia Clasp, China Service Medal, China Service Ribbon, National Defense Medal, Korean Service Medal with two Bronze Stars, United Nations Service Medal, Korean War Service Medal and Honorable Discharge Lapel Pin (Ruptured Duck), according to Guthrie’s office.
Elizabeth Meilicke held back tears as she told the audience how important it was to correct her father’s record because he spoke little of his military service with his nine children. Meilicke said they had few mementos left to hold onto because a series of typhoons in Guam washed away his military commendations and photo albums.
“I just want to thank you,” she said. “It just means so much to me. We don’t have a lot to remember our father except what he told us.”
The effort to correct the record was launched by Guerrero’s son-in-law, Arthur Meilicke, who was tracing his own family’s ancestry and stumbled across old Navy muster rosters. There, he found his father-in-law’s name aboard several ships that fought during World War II, including the U.S.S. Oklahoma, which sank at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and the U.S.S. Honolulu, which participated in the bombardment of Kiska in the Aleutian Islands.
Arthur Meilicke said his father-in-law also served on a naval ship that bombarded Guam, which probably brought a mix of emotions as his homeland was being liberated but family and friends were placed in harm’s way.
As he researched further, he asked his wife to request her father’s service records and found the summary of his military service to be severely “wanting,” particularly because he was missing many of the medals other sailors who served alongside him received. Meilicke attributed this to segregation of the officers as blacks, Filipinos and Chamorros, or Guamanians, were recruited to serve as mess attendants, cooks and stewards and had lower stations than other sailors at the time. Meilicke said his research found segregated sailors wore distinctive uniforms, had no authority over other sailors and often were paid less. In essence, he said, they were second-class citizens in the Navy.
“It really was terrible and it angered me,” he told the crowd.
Stewards were tasked with menial chores, such as cooking and laundry. Because of their stature, he said, they could not rise above the rating of steward but would take battle stations and fight alongside other sailors, operating guns and loading ammunition.
“They died and bled like everyone else but many times they are never recognized for it,” he said.
After concluding his research, he submitted his findings to Guthrie and pleaded for the record to be set straight, giving his father-in-law the proper public recognition for his exemplary wartime service.
Guthrie, a Republican who serves the 2nd Congressional District, said he was glad to help and expressed gratitude the military has changed its standards and removed segregation models that once were in place.
Meilicke said he believes Guerrero may still be owed Purple Hearts for his service aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma and has requested his medical records to no avail. Because of that, he says he has no proof to substantiate those claims.
“Anyway, we’ve done our job to some extent,” he said.
The couple, who live in Elizabethtown, remembered Guerrero as a quiet fisherman and farmer who loved children and his family and was willing to help out the distressed and needy, even when he had few resources to do so.
The couple is unsure why he enlisted in the Navy but said he may have noted an opportunity to make money and assist his family after his parents’ deaths because he was the eldest son. The couple said Guerrero’s sisters and brothers were living with other families as servants and cooks when he enlisted.
During his wake, former Navy stewards showed up to pay their respects to Guerrero, Arthur Meilicke said.
The two did not talk much, but he respected his father-in-law’s work ethic and how he instilled that characteristic in his children.
“He would tell them that you don’t just go out and tell people to do something, you have to get your boots dirty” and show them how to do it, Arthur Meilicke said.
“Lead by example,” Elizabeth Meilicke said.
That example sparked a tradition in the family as a number of Guerrero’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren joined the military.
Dave Jarrett, a Disabled American Veterans service officer and Navy veteran, said what the Meilickes have accomplished is monumental. He felt an immediate connection with the couple because he worked alongside stewards during his service.
“They were my friends,” he said.
Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or firstname.lastname@example.org.