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A surprising find in a condemned house is returned to the caregiver for a late WWI veteran

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Williams died in January 1998, months shy of his 99th birthday. With no known family alive, Blair made sure Williams was buried in his VFW uniform in a Sandy cemetery.Journalists love a good mystery.

Several weeks ago, Gresham resident Charles Childress came into The Outlook’s office with a Purple Heart medal he came across while cleaning out a condemned home in the Centennial neighborhood. Childress was helping his son-in-law empty the residence of detritus left behind by squatters, as a prelude to renovating the home for future sale.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Sandy resident and VFW Auxiliary member Vorice Blair is momentarily overcome with emotion after a Purple Heart medal belonging to the World War I veteran she cared for in the late 1990s in returned to her.The unwanted residents had stolen everything worth money from the house, Childress said — light fixtures, wiring, etc. — but either forgot about the medal or didn’t know what it represented.

“There was stuff everywhere — all over the floor,” Childress said. “(The medal) was something that was just overlooked. I went to Willamette National Cemetery but they couldn’t find anything. I couldn’t just throw it away. It means something to someone.”

The back of the Purple Heart identified the recipient as Halden C. Williams. Shortly after Childress left, Outlook photographer Josh Kulla posted a photo of the medal on Twitter, showing the name on the back. Within minutes, a follower replied that Halden C. Williams was a World War I veteran who had been buried in a Sandy cemetery.

A call to Sandy Funeral Home confirmed Williams’ final resting place, along with the name of a Sandy woman who came to be his friend and caregiver during the last years of his life. Through Vorice Blair, we became acquainted with Williams: a highly decorated and humble combat veteran, with an easy smile, deep religious beliefs and an unwavering sense of patriotism.

Halden C. Williams, known as Hal, was born Oct. 8, 1899, in Hamburg, Calif., a small town near the California/Oregon state line. Little is known about Williams’ childhood, except that as was common among young men at the time, he lied about his age to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1917.

For the duration of World War I, Williams was on the front lines of combat. He was wounded numerous times on the battlefield, Blair said, suffering injuries from shrapnel, gunfire and gas. Williams was also a compassionate comrade in arms, never leaving a fellow soldier behind.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Left: Halden 'Hal' C. Williams was awarded seven Purple Hearts and three Silver Stars for injuries received during combat in World War I. “Back then, if you were injured, the medics didn’t come to you — you had to walk back to them,” Blair explained. “On one of those occasions, Hal came across another wounded soldier. He helped him up and they walked back together.”

As a tribute to his heroics on the battlefield, Williams was awarded a total of seven Purple Hearts and three Silver Stars, prior to his discharge from the Army in 1920. In true patriot fashion, he then spent three years in the U.S. Army Reserves.

But while Williams’ life after World War I is mostly a mystery, Blair said he did talk of living on the East Coast, working as a “rum runner” for a time and later, as a chef at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. He married and became a father to one daughter, whose tragic and untimely death as a teenager cost him both his child and his marriage.

Williams remarried in 1963 and migrated west, ending up in Portland. After the death of his second wife, and getting up there in years, Williams bought a manufactured home and moved to Sandy in the late 1980s. A series of caregivers kept tabs on the lively 90-year-old, who loved to visit with friends and have an occasional drink at the Sandy VFW hall.

Which is where Blair came into his acquaintance.

Blair worked as the day-bar manager at the VFW. She became fond of the older gentleman, who sat at the bar, traded stories with other veterans and entertained Blair with his quick wit.

But in 1994, Blair began to see a disturbing trend developing with Williams’ caregivers.

“They would bring him in and leave him,” she said. “We didn’t have anything but snacks at the bar, so I’d send somebody over to the Dairy Queen for a sandwich or something. It got to the point where the caregivers were leaving him there all day.”

As manager, Blair was responsible for bar receipts. She began to notice that Williams’ checks written to the VFW were being returned for in-sufficient funds. But when Hal failed to come in several days in a row, Blair gathered a few VFW members and headed off to check in on her friend.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Williams' Purple Heart medal.“We found him still in bed, his place was a mess and he had had a glass of orange juice all morning,” Blair recalled. “The caregivers were nowhere to be found.”

Blair oversaw moving Williams to an adult assisted living facility in Gresham. She soon learned the depth of the troubles her friend was in.

“The caregivers took everything he had,” Blair said. “They cleaned out his bank account — he was bankrupt, and he never should have been. That’s when I got him.”

For the next four years, Blair kept a journal of the stories Williams told in an effort to document the life of an extraordinary man.

“Hal loved to tell stories,” Blair said. “He was always in a good mood and always so grateful for everything. He was also so patriotic. He would catch a glimpse of a flag and salute.”

Williams died quietly in Portland on Jan. 22, 1998, preceded by two wives and a daughter. Although military records attest to Williams being the recipient of nearly a dozen Purple Hearts and Silver Stars combined, Blair said the Army veteran was only in possession of a handful of them at the time of his death.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Gresham resident Charles 'Chuck' Childress found the Purple Heart medal awarded to Halden 'Hal' C. Williams while helping his son-in-law clean out a condemned house planned for renovation. Childress met with Blair recently to learn about Williams and return the medal to his caregiver.“I didn’t know what to do with them when he died,” she said, laughing. “So, I dressed him in his VFW uniform, put his VFW hat on, pinned the medals on and shipped him off.”

Which makes Charles Childress’ find in the abandoned house remarkable. Childress is a Korean War veteran and the mystery of the medal’s owner bothered him.

Recently, Blair and Childress met for the first time. Blair shared the story of her friend. Childress happily handed off the medal.

“My main concern was getting the medal back where it belonged,” Childress said. “I’m glad it’s been resolved, but this has been quite the story to tell.”

Looking at the Purple Heart nestled in yellowed satin inside the military-issued box, Blair’s eyes filled with tears.

“He was so much fun,” she said of Hal. “I still miss him.”

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