At age 17, Joe Cacioppo dropped out of high school in 1943 and joined the Marines to serve his country during World War II.
He was assigned to the Fourth Marine Division and was part of the force on Iwo Jima. On the front lines he was shot in his left hip, but kept fighting.
“I didn’t think I would make it off the island,” Cacioppo said.
He was later awarded a Purple Heart, but another accolade from his military service, the World War II Victory Medal, was never given to him.
That oversight was rectified Thursday, when the 92-year-old resident of Harmony Hall Assisted Living Center in Columbia received the overdue decoration at a ceremony hosted by the Howard County Office of Veterans and Military Families.
The former Marine, known as “Mr. Joe” at Harmony Hall, cracked a smile a few times during the ceremony and was appreciative for finally received the decoration.
“This is the medal that shows I served in the Second World War,” he said.
First issued as a service ribbon referred to as the Victory Ribbon, the World War II Victory Medal was established by an Act of Congress in 1945. Any member of the U.S. military who served in active duty, or as a reservist, between Dec. 7, 1941 and Dec. 31, 1946, is eligible to receive it.
Cacioppo admitted to being slightly “irked” that while Congress authorized the medal, some veterans, including himself, never obtained one.
“I feel that all the veterans from World War II should have it,” he said.
After learning that Cacioppo was among those who didn’t have one, Lisa B. Terry, manager of the Howard County Office of Veterans and Military Families, made it her mission to see that he received his medal.
She confirmed with the National Archives in College Park that he was indeed eligible, then actually bought one off eBay and organized a surprise ceremony.
“I’m very proud to be here to participate in this ceremony and make sure a deserving Marine receives the medal he is due,” Terry said.
Cacioppo moved into Harmony Hall last February. Terry said he loves calling bingo and “always has a joke in his pocket.”
Thursday’s ceremony included an appropriate chain of command. The medal was formally awarded by Ret. Marine Corps Col. Lou Schott, a 98-year-old Columbia resident who also served during World War II, participating in the New Britain, Peleliu and Okinawa campaigns as well as the occupation of North China.
Schott has several awards and medals himself, including a Purple Heart and a Combat Action Ribbon — and the WWII Victory Medal. He said he was happy to be part of another veteran getting his due recognition.
“I never dreamed at the age of 98 I was going to present a medal to a young marine of 92,” Schott said.
“It is well earned.”