More than 65 years after he left the U.S. Merchant Marine, James Pfafflin has been formally recognized as a veteran.
On Friday afternoon, four new medals were carefully pinned to the 88-year-old's blue plaid shirt.
The Pacific War Zone Medal for his service in the Pacific Ocean during World War II.
The Honorable Service Button and the Victory Medal, both recognizing the crew members of ships that served 30 days between Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 3, 1945.
And the Merchant Marine Service Emblem, an identifying insignia issued to all seamen.
Sitting in a wheelchair next to the American flag, Pfafflin saluted and shook the hand of VFW Lilac Post 5815 Cmdr. Michelangelo Di Cosola. Guests, packed into the room at Lombard's Beacon Hill senior community where Pfafflin now resides, broke into applause.
Pfafflin showed little emotion during the presentation of the awards, but he said he was happy to finally receive the medals.
"It feels really good," he said, adding that the awards brought back a lot memories, including the relief he felt whenever his ship returned home safe.
"We had heavy losses in the beginning on the East Coast," he said, adding that the casualty rate of Merchant mariners in World War II was higher than that in other services.
"We only had a big gun on the front and a bigger gun on the back, and 6 millimeters for protection. It wasn't much protection."
Pfafflin said the ships he served on regularly brought barrels of gasoline to small islands in the Pacific that couldn't store it.
Planes that landed on the island were then able to fuel up, he said.
The ships also brought blankets, food and other supplies to people on the islands.
Ellen Pfafflin said she found out about the awards about six months ago after filing to get her father-in-law's discharge form delivered to him, at his request.
She said he never received the papers because Merchant mariners weren't discharged or recognized with veteran status until 1988.
"Now he's finally feeling like, yes, he was in World War II and yes, he did his part for World War II," she said.
Pfafflin was appointed to the Merchant Marine in 1944. His first voyage was on a ship that left out of San Francisco that July. Michael Pfafflin said his father served on several ships and spent time at ports in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Hawaii and other places in the South Pacific.
Still, Michael said his father was occasionally considered "a draft dodger" by people who refused to recognize that Merchant mariners were part of the war, simply because they technically weren't "servicemen."
"I'm very proud of what he did for the country," Michael said. "I think it's important to recognize the people who keep us safe."
After leaving the Merchant Marine in 1948, Pfafflin attended the Worsham College of Mortuary Science.
He lived in Bellwood most of his life and worked as a mortician and funeral director at several funeral homes.
Before Friday's presentation, fifth-grade students from St. John's Lutheran School in Lombard gave short speeches about historic characters they portrayed in dress -- from Cleopatra and Joan of Arc to Harriet Tubman and Jane Goodall.
VFW Service Officer Jim Gilmore also read part of a letter President Harry Truman wrote to the Merchant Marine.
"I think really we need to recognize the sacrifices that Mr. Pfafflin and men like him made for the good of the country," he said afterward, adding that it is especially important for today's children to learn more about World War II.