GLENOLDEN — It took a huge army to defeat the enemy in World War II. Seventy-five years later, it took a small army of good friends, neighbors and caring individuals, to prompt the U.S. government to award John “Jack” Callahan the Presidential Medal he deserves for his WWII military service.
Callahan, 94, a 56-year resident of Glenolden, was born and raised in South Philadelphia. He and his late wife, Dolores, moved into the home, where he still lives, on November 22, 1963, the same day that President Kennedy was assassinated. Jack is a proud veteran, having served in the U.S. Army from 1942-46.
For years, the Army Veteran has had an array of medals, ribbons and citations, proudly displayed in his modest home, including the European-Africa-Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with four Bronze Stars, the American Theater Ribbon, and the Good Conduct Medal. However, there was always one important medal missing that the soldier knew should have been next to the others—The Presidential Unit Citation Award.
Callahan served as a Tech 5 Radio Operator in the Fifth Army Division of the 85th Calvary Mechanized Reconnaissance, Troop C, during The Battle of The Hürtgen Forest in Germany. The Battle of Hürtgen Forest was fought from Sept. 19 to Dec, 16, 1944, between American and German forces on the Western Front during World War II in the Hürtgen Forest, which lies on the border of Germany and Belgium. Until this day, the Battle of Hurtgen Forest has the distinction of being the longest battle on German ground during World War II, and the longest single battle the U.S. Army has ever fought. At least 33,000 troops were killed or wounded.
Immediately after the battle, Callahan was transferred to the 10th Infantry Division, where he finished out his service before being sent back to the United States to be discharged.
Callahan led a full life. He and Dolores raised two children, the late Sean Callahan and Melanie Callahan Eddy of Norwood. He made a career as a manager at John Wanamaker in the department store's Philadelphia warehouse. Sometime during those early years, when he first returned to civilian life, Callahan found out that members of the 85th Calvary received a Presidential Unit Citation, “in recognition for action above and beyond.” Because he had been transferred to the 10th Infantry Division, Callahan went unrecognized for his service in The Battle of Hürtgen Forest .
For many years, Callahan reached out to departments of the U.S. Army, attempting to get the medal that he rightfully deserved, but his efforts were fruitless since his discharge papers had him listed a member of the 10th Infantry, not the 85th Calvary. Although his quest for the medal continued to nag at him, he was discouraged and about to give up on ever receiving it, he says.
One day, more than two years ago, Callahan was getting his hair cut by barber Bob Ferrarelli, 72, owner of Village Styling on Lincoln Avenue in Prospect Park. In casual conversation, he told the barber about the difficult time he had encountered trying to secure recognition of participation in The Battle of Hürtgen Forest. Callahan began going to Ferrarelli for monthly haircuts 40 years ago, when Ferrarelli’s barber shop was located in Folcroft and, over time, their relationship evolved from barber-client to friends. After hearing Callahan’s story, Ferrarelli, with the help of Callahan’s good friend and neighbor, Rick McCray, immediately sprang into action to help the nonagenarian get his rightful due. McCray has been Callahan’s neighbor and friend for 25 years. Now in his 90s, Callahan depends on his younger buddy next door, like a parent would rely on a son.
“It took two and a half years of letter writing, phone calls, searching for records on multiple websites, going through military archives, visits to state representatives and Senate offices and a congressman, to prove that Jack was indeed worthy to receive the Presidential Unit Citation,” Ferrarelli explained. “We had to show evidence and documentary proof.”
Ferrarelli, a resident of Wayne, said that, once he started on the long road to straightening out this long ago snafu in Army paperwork, he couldn’t stop until the citation was in the rightful hands of the older man.
“The Battle of The Hürtgen Forest was one of the longest, deadliest battles in Army history. Many have never heard about it because the Battle of The Bulge got all of the publicity,” Ferrarelli shared. ““I’m an Army veteran myself. I persisted in getting Jack this medal because it really upset me that this man, who performed above and beyond the call of duty with his unit, did not receive his award because he was transferred and his records didn’t accurately reflect his service. I wanted to help because Jack always felt cheated. What happened is that he fell between the cracks.”
In a final plea letter on April 2 to the Commanding U.S. Army Human Resources Command and the Army Review Board Agency and Inquiry, Ferrarelli listed all of the evidence, once again, and then wrote, “Mr. Callahan is 94 years old and just got home from recuperation at an assisted living facility. He is not in the best of health. A veteran who served in one of the most horrendous battles of WWII needs someone to understand the urgency of this request and send him a letter granting him his deserved award. We’ve waited for two years. Please help this man.”
On May 20, 2019, veteran Jack Callahan received the letter he had waited seven decades to receive. The letter stated that the Army had corrected his service records and the Presidential Unit Citation would be officially awarded to him and would be shipped by mail.
When the treasured Citation medal arrived at his Glenolden address in June, Callahan got an unexpected surprise along with it. He also received a World War II Victory Medal, an Army Of Occupation With Germany Clasp medal, and a upgrade from four Bronze Stars to one Silver Star for the European-Africa-Middle Eastern medal. Additionally, through the efforts of Rick McCray, Jack’s friend and next-door neighbor, and Sean Callahan, Jack’s grandson, the World War II veteran also just received the French Chevalier De La Legion D’Honneur, honoring men who fought in France in WWII.
Thanks to the everyday aid and support that he receives from McCray, Callahan continues to live independently in the tight community that has been his home for decades. His girlfriend Carol Fisher of Holmes comes over each evening so they can enjoy dinner together. Callahan continues to be an active member of Schoolhouse Center in Folsom and the Herbert W. Best VFW 928 in Folsom. He also still serves on the Board of the Muckinipates Sewer Authority.
“Getting this medal for Jack really took an army of caring people,” Ferrarelli said. “I was becoming very irritated about how long this took. I really want to thank Walter Avery of the Army Review Board; Marie Cardinti and Felicia in Human Resources at Fort Knox, Kentucky; Jason at Sen. Pat Toomey’s office in Allentown; William Dondereo of Pat Meehan’s Springfield office; Will Cook, secretary of the 5th Armored Division Association; Lyman Ried of Modern Military Records National Archives; and a host of others who recognized the urgency of getting this good man the medal he deserves. It’s a shame it had to take so long but, in the end, he got his reward, and we’re thankful to everyone who helped make it happen.”
McCray, Ferrarelli and Callahan all agreed that although the medal is physically small in size, the sacrifice and significance of what it represents is huge.
“Jack Callahan is a wonderful man,” Ferrarelli said. “That’s why everyone wanted to help him attain this belated recognition, We are not talking about a specialized honor. He just simply wanted to be recognized that he was there, in the Hürtgen Forest, courageously answering his call to duty. We all feel so good that it finally happened for him. This, at last, is a well-deserved, happy ending for a brave American WWII soldier.”