WWII hero also helped Roy community grow

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 11:38 AM

Charles F. Trentelman

Roy Mayor Joe Ritchie's fondest memory of George Wahlen is of when the Medal of Honor recipient came to ask him for a favor.

Ritchie, a Weber County commissioner at the time, said Wahlen "had this harebrained idea that he wanted to put together a retirement home for veterans. I talked to him about it, and I said, 'It's a great idea, George. I don't know how I can help you, but let's do something.'

"He said, 'I don't need you to do anything but head me in the right direction.' The thing that impressed me about that was his enthusiasm," Ritchie said. "He was so enthusiastic, so dedicated to it already. How could you not support it?"

That visit was one of the first steps in a decades-long campaign Wahlen spearheaded that led to the George E. Wahlen Ogden Veterans Home.

Wahlen, for years Utah's only living recipient of the Medal of Honor, lobbied the Veterans Administration and state Office of Veterans Affairs. He was a regular at the Utah Legislature.

When the nursing home was dedicated two years ago, just months after Wahlen died, it was one of several facilities in Utah named for the quiet World War II pharmacist's mate who survived multiple wounds and came home a hero.

Wahlen distinguished himself in the battle of Iwo Jima, saving the lives of Marines despite being wounded three times himself. For that action, President Harry Truman presented to Wahlen the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House on Oct. 5, 1945.

Of the ceremony, Wahlen said, "The president fastened the medal around my neck and, you know, President Truman is a swell man."

He told The Associated Press that Truman had singled him out for special attention during the ceremony because he was the only Navy medic receiving the Medal of Honor that day. The other 13 recipients were Marines, but Wahlen was the only one Truman pulled to his side before presenting him with the medal.

"I don't remember his exact words," Wahlen said, "but he commented something to the effect it's mighty good to see a pill pusher there in the middle of all those Marines."

A week later, Walen told the Standard-Examiner, "It still doesn't seem real."

Wahlen was born in Ogden on Aug. 8, 1924, to Albert and Doris Wahlen. He attended Weber High School and in 1943 joined the U.S. Navy, where he was assigned to serve as a medical corpsman with the 5th Marine Division.

Wahlen was with the Marines when they invaded the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima. In the furious battle to take the island, Wahlen was wounded three times.

He refused to be evacuated and stayed in combat to treat the wounded, several times crawling through enemy fire to rescue Marines. He continued to provide aid even after the third wound, but then allowed himself to be treated and taken from the field.

He spent 10 months in the hospital. A story in the Standard-Examiner on Sept. 8, 1945, says he was awarded the Navy Cross with a gold star for his action in the battle. That was superseded by the Medal of Honor on Oct. 5. He was also awarded three Purple Hearts and several other awards.

After the war, Wahlen joined the Army and served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. He retired from active duty in 1969 and worked for a dozen years for the Veterans Administration. After retiring, he stayed active in veterans issues.

Roy City Manager Chris Davis said Wahlen was a great guy to have as a neighbor.

"We lived in the same LDS stake, and you know his son (Blake Wahlen) was the city manager for awhile, so I got to know him that way, and I got to hear about the basketball games George would play with Blake and Blake's sons, and he gave no quarter.

"He was one who was always willing to help out the community. He wanted to make sure we were headed in the right direction. He would come in occasionally and didn't want to make a big splash. If you had issues he wanted to visit about, he was willing to sit across the table and say, 'Let me understand about it.'

"I can remember as a city attorney sitting down and talking about things. I just remember the tone he came in with was not one of those pounding-fist things, just 'help me understand this.' "

In 1989, Roy named a city park after him. Davis remembers that Wahlen was reticent about it, "but understood and recognized that it was for his accomplishments."

In 2003, a special act of Congress allowed the Veterans Administration hospital in Salt Lake City to be renamed the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Normally, federal buildings cannot be named for people who are still alive, so special approval was necessary.

Several years later, Utah veterans succeeded in getting funding for a nursing home for veterans in Ogden. It was Wahlen's favorite project. Even as his health declined, his son, Blake, said a favorite Sunday outing was to drive by the construction site and see how it was progressing.

When Wahlen died on June 5, 2009, officials decided to name the center for Wahlen.

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