Clyde Ballenger’s Purple Heart is one of the few traces left of his life.
Before the 22-year-old was lost at sea in 1944, his wife, Elizabeth, had the couple’s only child, Linda. She was only a year old when her father died.
Nearly 70 years after Ballenger’s ship sank in the North Atlantic, a Wilmington mom, Sylvia Jabaley, discovered the medal while spring cleaning.
On Friday, Linda Bulla was reunited with her father’s Purple Heart after the iconic medal had been separated from the family for more than 15 years.
Bulla never thought she would see the medal again. As she sat inside the brick house at the corner of Wrightsville Avenue and Audubon Boulevard in Wilmington, Jabaley told her about finding the medal. Her husband, Eric, first discovered it in 1998 while he sifted through items left behind by renters. It had been put away for safekeeping and forgotten until she came across it.
Jabaley, the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran, immediately recognized the medal – awarded to members of the armed forces wounded in action.
“I couldn’t imagine my dad’s medal being in somebody else’s top dresser drawer,” Jabaley said, as Bulla sat at her kitchen table.
“I’m glad he didn’t just throw it away,” Bulla said.
While the two women talked, Bulla clutched the Purple Heart in her hand, the ribbon wedged safely between her fingers. It was home again.
Medal presents mystery
After Jabaley found the medal, she spent hours searching the Internet for some information about Ballenger’s family. She found no confirmed family members, and how the medal ended up in her home was still a mystery.
Ballenger, a boatswain’s mate second class for the U.S. Coast Guard, was killed on March 9, 1944.
On that night, the USS Leopold was about 400 miles south of Iceland. The Leopold was a destroyer-escort protecting a convoy against German U-boats, or submarines.
On March 9, the ship was rocked by a torpedo as its gunners fired at a U-boat, which was already descending into the waters.
A storm was strengthening. Waves 50 feet high washed over the ship, which rolled over, flinging crew members into the ocean.
A nearby ship reached the wreckage the next morning. Of 199 crew members, there were only 28 men left to save.
Ballenger was among the lost. Nearly 3,000 miles away, his wife, Elizabeth Emily, would soon hear her husband was gone.
After the war
Elizabethremarried when Linda was 3 years old and raised her daughter in Wilmington. Clyde was the only child of Clyde Austin Ballenger and Nora Prevatte Ballenger, who lived in New Bern.
Bulla was 6 years old when her grandmother, Nora, died. She remembers spending summers with her grandfather, Clyde Austin, in New Bern. He would talk about her father a lot, though she wishes she remembered more. “I was so young then,” she said.
Her grandfather died when she was 12.
She regrets that she did not ask her mom more questions about her dad. Her mom died of a brain tumor at 49.
“When you’re young, you don’t start thinking about the things you think about when you’re older,” she said.
But she did keep letters her dad wrote her mother during the war. The military used thick black lines to censor some parts of the letters, though.
She figures her mom was working at Saffo’s Restaurant in downtown Wilmington when she met her dad, who came in for food.
They were married sometime after, likely in South Carolina.
Returning the medal
When Bulla was reached in Fayetteville earlier this summer by a Wilmington StarNews reporter about the medal, she got goosebumps when she heard about her father’s Purple Heart being found in Wilmington.
Hearing from a stranger about the lost medal reminded her of another experience when she helped return an urn containing a woman’s ashes to her son.
Bulla, who manages rental property in the Fayetteville area, kept the abandoned urn safe in her office after a tenant gave it to her. About a week later, a tornado struck and a painting dropped out of the sky near her office.
When a Raleigh TV station did a story on the mystery painting, Bulla mentioned having the urn. A genealogist who heard the story tracked down the woman’s family and Bulla shipped it to her son.
“That kind of reminds me of this,” Bulla said. “I just thought it was gone.”
Bulla had once lived in the house where the Jabaleys live now. After she moved away, her son David moved in. Eventually, she gave David her father’s Purple Heart.
In 1996, Hurricane Fran damaged a brick apartment in the backyard. She said her son thought everything in the building was destroyed and he lost track of the medal about that time.
“I’m really glad to get it back,” Bulla told Jabaley. “I’m going to keep it now.”
Bulla showed Jabaley a photograph of a young Clyde, wearing a military uniform and a white hat.
“Oh my gosh, he’s so young,” Jabaley said.
Bulla figures he was 19 or 20. In the picture, he has bright eyes and is smiling broadly. It would have been what he looked like when he married Elizabeth.
Although her mom didn’t always talk about becoming widowed so young, she knows it was hard for her.
Even though they lived near the coast, her mom hated to go to the beach. One day she asked her why.
“I sit on that beach and look out across that water and all I can think about is your daddy,” she said.