HONOLULU (Reuters) - Nearly seven decades after he was wounded during the pivotal Battle of the Bulge, former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Arthur E. Ross was presented on Wednesday with a much-belated Bronze Star Medal for his service during World War Two.
The 87-year-old former rifleman and retired lawyer received the award during an hourlong ceremony under sunny skies at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickham in Honolulu.
Forced by illness three years ago to retire from a 56-year legal career, Ross walked slowly as he was escorted to the podium, but took to the platform with ease, stood tall and seemed invigorated as he spoke.
"My health doesn't allow me to create many meaningful moments in my life," Ross said, addressing an audience that included family members, friends, military officials and Honolulu's mayor.
"This is a proud and meaningful moment in my life, and an unexpected moment," he said, adding, "My only regret of this 66-year hiatus is that my parents didn't live to see it. But better late than never."
While his wife and daughter fought back tears, Ross, dressed in a business suit with purple tie, smiled and laughed as the presenter struggled for about a minute to pin the medal to his chest.
Army Major General Stephen Tom said the delay in presenting the medal -- for "exemplary performance under enemy fire" -- was due to "the government's oversight" and "administrative errors."
When a friend and colleague, retired Colonel Tom Farrell spoke with Ross about the war a few months ago, he asked the former infantryman why he had not received the Bronze Star.
Farrell began looking into the matter without his friend's knowledge and learned that Ross had met all of the requirements. He submitted a request on his behalf, and the National Personnel Records Center in Missouri authorized the award about a month later, Farrell said.
Ross, who served in the 2nd Battalion, 328th Infantry, previously received the Purple Heart for three shrapnel wounds to his back that he sustained during the Battle of the Bulge, a major winter offensive launched by the Germany army against Allied forces in the Ardennes region of Belgium in late 1944.
Ranked as the bloodiest battle fought by U.S. soldiers during World War II, the offensive claimed 89,000 American casualties, including some 19,000 killed. The offensive was ultimately defeated by the Allies and proved a key turning point in the European theater.
Ross told Reuters he was wounded by "tree bursts" -- the ricocheting of bullets off trees in the heavily wooded mountains -- during the campaign.
But he said the scariest, most memorable moment in the war for him came later during an engagement outside Serrig, Germany, where his platoon was ambushed by German troops while trying to scale a steep hill.
Pinned down by enemy fire for an entire day, Ross recalled, "I managed to stay alive by finding a hole to jump into."
Ross said he saw more than 500 of his fellow soldiers lose their lives during his time in the service.
Following the war, the New York native went to college and graduated from Columbia University, then earned his legal degree from New York University School of Law.
He settled in Hawaii in the 1970s and served as a Honolulu deputy prosecutor and assistant U.S. attorney before entering private practice. He still holds the record for arguing more cases than any other lawyer before the Hawaii Supreme Court.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Jerry Norton