By Crystal Britt
VAN BUREN, MO (KFVS) - Honoring a local hero who is finally receiving the medals he earned more than six decades ago.
Junior Wells of Van Buren got the shock of his life Wednesday when family, friends and local veterans surprised him with a special ceremony.
Junior Wells served in the Navy during World War II from 1943 to 1946.
He lived to tell stories few can even imagine.
Wednesday, 64 years later he was honored for everything he did for us.
It was an emotional tribute for Junior Wells, a man who waited almost a lifetime to receive the medals he earned so bravely during World War II.
Wells enlisted in the Navy in 1943, and was assigned to the USS War Hawk in 1945.
The crew headed to the South Pacific where tragedy would soon follow.
January 10, 1945 just before dawn an explosion by a Japanese suicide boat tore a 25 foot hole in the portside.
"120 Marines were trapped under there," said Junior Wells.
Many of them died. Wells remembers vividly recovering his fallen comrades.
"Reached down there, pulled up and skin came off one Marine's hand," said Wells.
It's a horror he'll likely never forget.
"If there was any hell on earth. That was pretty close to it," said Wells.
The ship listed for about 30 days in the water. During that time Wells, a gunner's mate, and the rest of the crew worked to hold off air attacks before finally making it to land.
"I was in the Pacific so long, all I ever saw was water," said Wells.
"He said he didn't want to wait on his medals. He said he had one thing on his mind, and that was to get home," said Erma Wells-Junior's Wife.
So the young man headed home to Southeast Missouri with no medals in hand even though he earned many.
"We've been married 55 years. I've said I'd love to get those medals, and it came to pass and I'm so thankful," said Erma Wells.
Wells says her husband's health is very poor.
She couldn't stand the thought of him leaving this world and never actually seeing those medals.
On July 14, 2010 family, friends and local veterans all watched on as Erma and others recognized the bravery of this man.
Erma read a letter from President Truman in 1946. An excerpt of it said, "I extend heartfelt thanks of a grateful nation."
The words echoed in Van Buren 64 years later to not only Wells, but the other veterans standing beside him.
Wells received three medals Wednesday: The Philippine Liberation Liberty Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.
As for what it means to Wells, "Oh everything."
He could have died that day with the many many others who perished on that ship.
Wells knows he's here for a reason.
"I told God you get me out of this mess, and I'll live for you when I get home," said Junior Wells.
A promise he says he kept.
Wells has more medals headed his way. He's still waiting on his Combat Action Medal, and five bronze stars.
Junior Wells turns 85 on July 27th.