Decorations lost, but significance remains: 93-year-old veteran honored again

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Maj. Gen. Carl Schaefer, Air Force Materiel Command deputy commander, renders a salute to 93-year-old World War II veteran 1st Lt. Joseph Kollenberg after a ceremony at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, July 24. Schaefer presented Kollenberg with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, and the European, African, and Middle Eastern campaign service medals to replace those misplaced in the 70 years since the veteran left active duty service. (Air Force photograph by Ken LaRock)

When asked what mission scared him the most, 93-year-old World War II veteran 1st Lt. Joseph Kollenberg’s response was simple: None of them.

“I was never scared and didn’t have anything to be afraid of,” said Kollenberg, a mindset that epitomizes the bravery and courage the members of the “Greatest Generation” displayed as they fought to secure the freedoms Americans far and wide enjoy to this day.

More than 70 years ago, Kollenberg served as a B-24 Navigator in the U.S. Army Air Corps, completing more than 27 combat missions over Northern France, Germany, the Ardennes and Central Europe. Assigned to the 329th Squadron, 93rd Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, his efforts earned him multiple decorations for valor, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, and the European, African, and Middle Eastern campaign service medals.

However, in the decades that have passed since leaving the service, Kollenberg’s original medals and citations were lost, leaving behind only the significance of their honor in his memories.

At a surprise ceremony in front of the B-24 “Strawberry Bitch” at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, July 24, 2019, Maj. Gen. Carl Schaefer, Air Force Materiel Command deputy commander, presented Kollenberg with a set of replacement medals in honor of his courage and bravery during a significant time in our Nation’s history.

“We have an amazing hero from World War II — someone who did 27 missions over Europe at a time when just surviving 20 missions over Europe was a feat. He served honorably, he came back, and he’s part of the reason we are all standing here today living in a free America,” said Schaefer during the presentation. “It is truly an honor to have you here and be in your presence.”

World War II veteran 1st Lt. Joseph Kollenberg poses in front of the B-24 “Strawberry Bitch” at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, July 24. Kollenberg served as a B-24 Navigator in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1944-1945, completing more than 27 combat missions over Northern France, Germany, the Ardennes and Central Europe. (Air Force photograph by Ken LaRock)

The presentation, orchestrated by long-time friend and Air Force veteran R. Ken Trammell, was followed by a special museum tour and a look inside of the B-24 for Kollenberg and his family, who travelled across state lines for the event.

“When I became aware of what he had done (during the war), I just wanted to make sure he received his recognition and could once again be recognized for his accomplishments,” said Trammell. “He is a true member of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ and his awards represent the sacrifices and accomplishments he has achieved.”

Kollenberg entered the Army Air Corps in October 1942 and began active duty service in January 1943. He completed Army Air Force Specialized Navigation Training School in April 1944 and commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant upon completion. He arrived in the European Theater in July 1944 and assigned to the 329th Bomb Squadron, stationed at RAF Hardwick in the United Kingdom for the duration of his service, which included 27 combat missions over enemy territory. Kollenberg was discharged in December 1945.

“I’m glad to be here,” said Kollenberg, after receiving the awards and a salute rendered by Schaefer in his honor. “They covered the story pretty well. Thank you.”