In April, Michael Mazzariello, 11, and his brother Mario, 8, entered a pawn shop in Newburgh, N.Y., with their father in search of old G.I. Joe action figures but instead found a box of military medals that piqued their interest. Sifting through the bunch, the boys found a Bronze Star, a Good Conduct Medal and a Purple Heart — all three with the name Charles J. George inscribed on the back.
“I thought it was wrong that they were in a shop,” Michael said. “They are one of our nation’s highest honors.”
The three medals were for sale for $450, but after the boys’ father talked with the storeowner, the Mazzariellos were allowed to take the medals home for free and start their search for their rightful owner.
“We walked in looking for G.I. Joe, and we came out with a real American hero,” Michael said.
The precocious boys began working feverishly. Their first stop was the Internet, specifically The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor website, which lists all Purple Heart recipients. The only name that popped up was a Swain County man who served in Korea — but no other information was available.
Although they were closer, the boys were still not 100 percent sure that the medals belonged to the Charles George listed on the website and still didn’t know who to contact. The boys wrote U.S. Sen. William Larkin (R-New York), Veterans Affairs officials and even the White House looking for help.
Larkin was able to put the boys in touch with the executive director of The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor. But, the big break came when Michael and Mario found a YouTube video about the Asheville Veteran Affairs hospital being named after Charles George.
From there, they made contact with Warren Dupree, service officer for Steve Youngdeer Post 143 in Cherokee.
“I just got a really interesting email one day. Just out of the blue,” said Dupree, who was making arrangements for the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall, which stopped in Cherokee last month.
After talking with the boys and their parents, Dupree began an investigation of his own to confirm the medals belonged to Charles George, the Korean veteran and enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Like all things in the military, the inquiry needed to be done by the book. The local American Legion and the tribe could not just take possession of the medals and represent them as George’s without proof.
“We had to confirm,” Dupree said. “You can’t just say, ‘These are his.’”
After getting permission from George’s family to open up his military records, Dupree thought verifying that the medals belonged to George was only a short step away. A quick search through the army records in St. Louis, and they would have their answer.
“That would have been too easy,” Dupree said.
Unfortunately for their search, all the army personnel records from 1912 to 1957 disintegrated in a fire and could not be reconstructed.
“It was really disheartening,” Dupree said. “Every door that we opened, very gently closed.”
Dupree and the Mazzariello spoke with dozens of people in an attempt to crack the case, but to no avail. People who had served with George were either deceased or in their 80s and had faded memories.
But, a couple key facts allowed them to use the process of elimination. First of all, George’s father was named Jacob. When soldiers did not have middle names, the army used their father’s first name as the son’s middle name — hence Charles J. George.
Also, George’s mother and father traveled from Cherokee to New York City in 1954 to accept medals on behalf of their son, offering a possible explanation for how the medals ended up in New York. And, as far as anyone can tell, there has never been another Charles J. George in the military.
A long way home
Although no one knows how the medals got lost, Dupree has a theory.
George’s parents had lived and stayed around Cherokee throughout their lives and were not used to the fast pace of a big city. In fact, his mother’s primary language was Cherokee, though both spoke English.
When George’s parents traveled to New York City in 1954 to honor their son, they were still grieving.
“If you can, imagine what is going on in their minds,” Dupree said. Not to mention the shock of visiting a metropolis, “the noise, the chatter, the madness,” he said.
Dupree postulated that George’s parents forgot some of the medals when they left their New York hotel to travel back home. And, during those times, communication was slow, and finding a stranger hundreds of miles away in North Carolina would have been difficult.
Fast-forward nearly 60 years, the medals were finally brought home. To celebrate their return and the Michael and Mario’s efforts, the Cherokee chapter of the American Legion honored the two boys at its Veterans Day ceremony Monday.
Prior to taking the stage at the Cherokee Fairgrounds Exhibition Hall, Mario remained silent, holding onto an original box containing a 1980s G.I. Joe and allowing his big brother to speak for the both of them. Only when questioned about the action figure did he excitedly interject his thoughts.
But, once taking the stage, both Michael and Mario sounded like they had given speeches for crowds since they could talk, taking the appropriate pauses and raising their voices to incite excitement into the crowd similar to a politician right before Election Day.
“We were taught at an early age to respect all things military,” Mario started.
The boys said their parents had taught them that whenever they see a serviceman or woman to walk right up, shake their hand and thank them for their service.
“They are fighting for our freedom,” Michael said.
As Michael and Mario grew up, the family made a conscious effort to travel to various landmarks and museums learning about American history.
During his moment on the stage, Mario appealed to other young children to do the same.
“Hear this,” Mario said in as serious and booming of a voice as an 8-year-old can muster. “Please take the time to learn your history.”
Mario told his peers to set aside video games and educate themselves on the realities of war, not what video games teach them.
“It’s real. It’s not a video game,” Mario said.
Also at the event were three of George’s nieces who accepted the medals on behalf of their family.
“It means a lot,” said Patty Buchanan, one of George’s nieces. “It’s a lot of closure.”
Buchanan said that the family knew the medals were missing all those years and was elated to hear someone had found them.
Michael assured the relatives that his family would not forget Charles J. George.
“We were in awe at his heroic actions,” Michael said. “We came to know him; we came to love him.”
After the speeches and many thanks, the Mazzariellos and the Georges gathered on the stage for a photo together with the returned medals.
“What a wonderful way to end a wonderful story,” Dupree said.
Who was Charles J. George?
Charles George was an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians from Birdtown and a private first class in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
At the age of 18, George enlisted in the army while the country was in the midst of the Korean War. Following basic training, George began his tour of duty in September 1951 as a member of Company C, 179th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division.
George was part of a raiding party tasked with engaging the enemy and capturing people for interrogation. One day, George and two other soldiers continued to secure an area while their fellow troops fell back to camp. A grenade was launched at the three, and George was able to warn one soldier and pushing the other out of the way before throwing himself onto the explosive.
George died later that day from his injuries near Songnae-dong, Korea in November 1952, more than a year after his tour started.