While cleaning out her aunt Genevieve’s apartment in New Hampshire more than a decade ago, Saundra Skiesgelas found an old military decoration that sparked her curiosity.
“I said, ‘What about this, auntie?’ ” Skiesgelas said. “She said, “It’s nothing. Get rid of it.”
Skiesgelas couldn’t bring herself to toss the medal – which turned out to be a Purple Heart belonging to Genevieve Guidi’s first husband. Skiesgelas set about trying to track down the descendants of its owner, Army Sgt. James Hanlon of Boston, who was killed in World War II. He died in combat during Operation Torch in Algeria in 1942 at age 35 and was awarded the Purple Heart, a decoration for those hurt or killed while serving.
Now, after 11 years of searching and almost 72 years since his passing, Hanlon’s family took possession of the medal in a Sunday ceremony in Maine. Two of his nieces, Patricia Weeks of Gorham and Cynthia Mowles of Saco, received the medal in Harrison.
Skiesgelas’ search for Hanlon’s family picked up steam in 2009 after her aunt’s death, when she found a prayer book, pictures of Hanlon and his obituary while cleaning out Guidi’s room. She later contacted Purple Hearts Reunited, which reconnects families with lost Purple Hearts. The group found Hanlon’s nieces in Maine.
“It was a joyous celebration of who he was,” said Capt. Zachariah Fike, who operates Purple Hearts Reunited, which has returned more than 100 medals and artifacts to military families. “A chance to retell his story.”
Hanlon’s other decorations include the Bronze Star and American Campaign Medal, Fike said. His body was returned to America in 1949 and is buried in Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, New York.
Weeks said she plans to pass the medal down to one of her grandchildren, who is interested in history. She described Hanlon as a career military man with a carefree side that always came out at family dinners, which were always be full of laughter. Weeks said she’ll never forget the sadness that came over the family when they received a telegram about Hanlon’s death.
“It’s amazing that anybody bothered,” Weeks said. “We looked for this so many years ago. To think she tried all the years.”