After more than 70 years, William Richard Giles and his family received the recognition he has deserved for more than half a century.
Giles, originally from Hoquiam, was honored posthumously with a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Army Good Conduct Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and Combat Medical Badge in September. The awards were accepted by Giles’ sister, Katherine Stiewig, at her home in Fort Collins, Colo.
Giles served in the medical detachment of the 109th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division and died in an enemy minefield in the Hurtgen Forest in Germany on Nov. 4, 1944, two weeks shy of his 22nd birthday.
After rescuing one group of wounded comrades, Giles returned to the minefield, leading a litter squad to evacuate more service members when mines exploded, killing him instantly.
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Giles’ remains were not able to be returned stateside after his death, and the presentation of the awards only represents one piece of his family’s search for information on the fallen soldier.
Giles was born in Hoquiam and Stiewig has property in Willapa Bay, a destination for Stiewig’s daughter, Ann Stiewig Benham, and her family when they were younger. Giles’ parents, Harry and Hazel, were longtime residents of Grays Harbor and Giles is a graduate of Hoquiam High School.
In 2008, Stiewig saw a newspaper article that said a soldier from the same division and infantry unit as Giles had been found and identified with the help of DNA before being brought home for a proper burial.
This finding sparked the journey that was to follow, with the Giles’ family looking for him and hoping for closure. Family members have put forward DNA in hopes of finding a lead in the case.
“Up until 2008, if we hadn’t seen that article, we wouldn’t be talking to you today,” Benham said. “It’s not like the military will reach out and contact you over this. It’s been a long and complicated journey that we’ve been on.”
As part of the process, the military provided Benham with an Individual Deceased Personnel File, or IDPF. In the file, a handwritten note from Giles’ mother to the Army asking for help finding any information they could about her son’s recovery was unearthed.
Benham came across the American World War II Orphans Network while searching for her uncle and discovered that on top of the Purple Heart the family knew Giles had been awarded, he was also recognized with a Bronze Star.
Through exchanges with the network, it was discovered Giles’ name was on the Wall of the Missing in the Margraten Cemetery in the Netherlands. After finding his name on the wall on the Internet, it was then learned that he had been awarded the Bronze Star, as awards were listed with missing soldiers’ names.
Stiewig connected with a European family that has adopted some of the names, including Giles’, and the correspondence has resulted in a family friendship.
“We’ve learned not only about my uncle, but about a lot of the impacts (of the war) on the families in Europe. They honor the fallen for the freedoms they now have,” said Benham.
The journey has been an enlightening one for the family. Benham said family members’ experience in the military was never a topic that garnered much conversation.
“Our father was in the Army, too, and he never talked about his experience either. We didn’t know anything about that whole era,” she said. “As a family we didn’t know that much about any of the circumstances. We knew that (Giles) had gone to Stanford and then enlisted and went overseas.”
Giles studied medicine at the university for a little more than a year before joining the military.
The family found out about the rest of the awards when they contacted the military to say they had misplaced Giles’ Purple Heart. They had the option of having a ceremony dedicating the awards at Fort Carson, but decided to have a small, private ceremony held at Stiewigs’ house because of her poor health.
Two officers from Fort Carson performed the ceremony after the awards were FedExed to the military base. A large group of family members joined Stiewig and Benham for the ceremony, spanning three generations.
The family has submitted a disinterment request with the Defense of Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency that one of the unknowns buried in Europe be disinterred for possible DNA identification of Giles.
Benham and the family are hopeful the request will produce answers, but worried that closure won’t come in time for her mother to see the fruits of their investigative labor.
“There still is this slightly open wound, so to speak, because we are fairly confident there are some remains out there that are his,” she said.