LOMBARD – World War II was over, and Jim Pfafflin's four-year service with the U.S. Merchant Marines had just ended in 1948.
Pfafflin, however, wasn't included in the country's celebration that welcomed home members of the U.S. military. Merchant Marines weren't considered a military service.
On Friday, Pfafflin's recognition finally arrived, nearly 70 years later, along with a celebration in his honor. The 88-year-old Lombard resident sat reverently as the Lombard Veterans of Foreign Wars commander presented him with service decorations in a room packed with his family, veterans, community members and media.
The moment and the medals offered Pfafflin a measure of vindication.
"I feel like I'm part of the country," Pfafflin, who lives at Beacon Hill in Lombard, said of what the recognition means to him.
After presenting the decorations, VFW Commander Michelangelo Di.Cosola stood and saluted Pfafflin along with other members of Lilac Post 5815.
"I'm proud to pin those medals on him," Di.Cosola said. "It's something that's a long time coming. Any veteran or Merchant Marine shouldn't have to wait this long. But as long as he got it, we're glad for him."
Beacon Hill, a senior living community, hosted the celebration, which began with a historical presentation by about 20 fifth-graders from St. John's Lutheran School in Lombard.
Jim Gilmore, veterans service officer for the Lombard VFW, took the podium and spoke about Pfafflin's career and family, which traveled from as far as Utah to be there.
Gilmore choked up as he explained the magnitude of the event.
"I think we need to recognize the sacrifice Mr. Pfafflin and men like him made for the country."
It was Pfafflin's daughter-in-law, Ellen Pfafflin, who spearheaded the presentation. While working to obtain Pfafflin's service discharge papers, she discovered that he was eligible for the medals.
"We thought it would be nice to do something for him since, when they returned, they weren't part of the celebration," Ellen Pfafflin said. "So I called up the VFW to see if they could do a little bit more."
The Merchant Marines vessels transported cargo and passengers in support of the U.S. military. Pfafflin, who started as an ordinary seaman in 1944, climbed through the ranks to junior 3rd officer.
Pfafflin said last week that he has memories from every trip, either good and bad, but his children said it wasn't something he talked about much while they were growing up.
"He's kind of a private man about that," said Mary Lemm, who lives in Glen Ellyn. "He never really talked much about it. Part of it is his nature, and part of it, again, Merchant Marines were not recognized as part of the war."
After returning from the war, Pfafflin worked as a funeral director throughout Chicago's suburbs. He and his wife, Catherine, raised four children and were married for more than 50 years. They lived together at Beacon Hill before she died in 2010.
"He definitely always loved his children and took care of his family," eldest son Michael Pfafflin said.
The family tried to keep the celebration a secret. But even after he learned about it ahead of time, the event was far bigger than he had expected.
"That was really nice," Pfafflin said. "It surely was a surprise."
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Pacific War Zone Bar: Awarded for service in the Pacific zone
Honorable Service Button: Awarded to crew members who served for at least 30 days between Dec. 7, 1941 and Sept. 3, 1945
Merchant Marine Service Emblem: An identifying insignia to be issued to all seamen
World War II Victory Medal: Commemorates service during World War II