John Gutbrod says he never really thought much about the medals when he first came home from World War II.
Like most of those who served in that war, the medals weren't terribly important back then.
"I just wanted to get out of there and get home," Gutbrod said Wednesday afternoon at the meeting of the Ocean County Board of Freeholders in Toms River.
"There," of course, was the European theatre of the war, where Gutbrod, a paratrooper in the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, fought not only at D-Day, but at the Battle of the Bulge, ultimately contributing to the effort to liberate France from Nazi occupation.
Gutbrod, who earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his actions, as well as nine other decorations, never actually received the medals despite receiving a letter stating he was entitled to them. As the years passed, however, the medals became important, to Gutbrod's family and to Gutbrod himself. And at an event in Surf City, he asked Freeholder Director Gerry P. Little for help.
" 'I'd like to get these for my family,' " Little quoted Gutbrod as saying.
On Wednesday, nearly 68 years after he singlehandedly took out a German Panzer tank with a hand grenade -- the action that earned him the Bronze Star for valor -- Gutbrod received his medals in a ceremony during the freeholders' meeting that was packed with well-wishers.
Commander Leonard Mueller, the former executive officer of Navy Lakehurst, pinned the Purple Heart on Gutbrod's lapel first as John Dorrity, director of the Ocean County Veterans Service Bureau, read the official citation from the government. Gutbrod received his Purple Heart after he was injured in the stomach when a mortar shell exploded near his foxhole in France.
The Bronze Star was next. The citation noted that Gutbrod saw the Panzer approaching his battalion headquarters and he charged the tank, tossing a grenade with a 3-second fuse into the open hatch. The grenade exploded the tank's armament, destroying the tank. The force of the explosion threw Gutbrod over a hedgerow and into a field.
Gutbrod's family -- son Eric and his wife, Moira, and granddaughter Lindsay -- beamed and wiped tears from their eyes as the medals were pinned on Gutbrod's lapel. His other granddaughter, Laura, is currently in the Army in Fort Gordon, Ga.
"He got to see her graduate from basic training," Eric Gutbrod said. "She's following in his footsteps."
Also pinned on John Gutbrod's jacket were the Presidential Unit Citation, which was awarded to certain units for their actions during the war, Dorrity said, and the Combat Infantry Badge, which Dorrity said was awarded to those who spent an extended time in direct combat with the enemy. It was hard to achieve as the average length of combat during World War II was 10 days, Dorrity said.
In addition, he received the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with four bronze service stars; the American Campaign Medal; the Parachutist Badge; the Sharpshooter's Badge; the American Defense Service Medal; the Good Conduct Medal and the World War II Victory Medal, which Dorrity presented to him in a shadow box.
He also will be receiving the Legion of Honor from the French government, after the county contacted the French Consulate in New York about the honor, Little said.
Gutbrod said in the first hours of his regiment's D-Day combat -- they parachuted behind enemy lines the day before the invasion and fought a series of skirmishes to protect the landing zones on the beaches -- resulted in tremendous casualties, including injuring and killing five of his unit's senior officers. By the time the war ended, he said, his unit had seen 150 percent replacement with new soldiers. Today, he is the only member of his unit who is still alive and one of six in his regiment.
Gutbrod, who will be 91, in September, also was joined by the members of the Surf City Fire Company, where he has been a volunteer since 1980.
"I know John Gutbrod would not use this term to describe himself, but he is under every definition of the word a true American hero," Little said.
"The heroes are over there," Gutbrod said, choking up slightly as he tried to deflect the praise.
"To him it was an honor, an honor and a duty to serve his country," Eric Gutbrod said. "To me he's a hero."