WEST ORANGE, NJ — Several years ago, four lost World War II medals issued to an unknown recipient had found their way to the VFW office at West Orange Town Hall. When Township Historian Joseph Fagan, who also serves as the township’s Public Information Officer, received them in the spring, he stored them under his desk; but nobody knew whom the medals belonged to or how they came to be at town hall.

Fagan was recently reminded of those medals when he “accidentally disturbed them as [he] was getting up, and they fell on the floor.”

Several months later, Fagan shared the following story about those medals and how he recently managed to return them to their owners.

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“As they laid sprawled before me, I imagined someone who might have fought in combat to receive these. Seeing them renewed my interest but wondered what could I possibly do? It would be a shame they would wind up lost and forgotten so I decided to take another look.

“In doing so, I noticed something not seen before on the back of one of them. It was engraved ‘O. P. Minihane - 02068294 - Jan. 1945.’ Medals were not issued with names engraved on them, but the recipient could do so if desired. This was only a small clue, but at least it was something to go on and investigate further.

“Of the four medals there was: the one with the name engraved, two identical looking medals paper clipped together, and a World War II participation medal.

“I was able to determine that the two clipped together were Distinguished Flying Crosses, and the one with the name engraved was an Air Medal. I was astonished to learn that these were very prestigious medals. They were awarded for extraordinary heroism and for single acts of heroism while participating in aerial flight.

“Over the course of several months, I was only able to find one O.P. Minihane who passed away on Oct. 3, 1996.

“Subsequent searches, including military records, revealed very little additional information. I didn't even know if I was looking for the right person and became discouraged each time.

“Finally, after many attempts, I found his name in a World War II newsletter from the 306th Bomber Group. It contained an obituary with additional information with the same date of death, so I now knew it likely was him. When he passed away in 1996 he left behind a wife Betty, three children, and six grandchildren. It suddenly occurred to me that there probably were surviving family members that would love to have this medal back.

“Subsequent research revealed that this Air Medal engraved with the name Oliver P. Minihane served in the Eighth Air Force, 306th Bomber Group, 369th Squadron. They were the first bomber group fully operational in the Eighth Air Force and flew bombing missions over Germany. I learned Minihane was part of a B-17 crew as a navigator.

“I reached out to a group on Facebook with over 10,000 members all throughout New Jersey. Within an hour, I received a phone call from someone who knew Oliver Minihane's son, Chris. The caller informed me that his son was on Facebook, and that I should seek him out.

“I was in silent disbelief because I knew who Chris was. I had lost contact with him, but I still had an old phone number and knew where to find him.

“Chris was amazed and explained that his father's medals had been missing since 1967. His older sister had taken them to school to use as props in a ‘Sound of Music’ school play to decorate Nazi officer uniforms. Ironically, they were the exact enemy the medals were awarded for fighting against in the first place.

“In our conversation, Chris mentioned that his father also was missing two Distinguished Flying Crosses and a World War II participation medal. Apparently, all four medals were taken to school by his sister to be used in the play and never came back home.

“I informed Chris that I had the other three medals he described as belonging to his father. Although only the Air Medal was engraved with his father's name, the exact medals Chris mentioned were all grouped with the missing Air Medal.

“Somehow all four World War II medals belonging to his late father, Oliver P. Minihan, ended up in West Orange Town Hall. As fate would have it, the mission I was charged with to find the medals a good home actually resulted in finding the home of the medals.

“His mother, Betty, mentioned in the 1996 obituary, is now 91 years old and living in South Carolina. She had just recently put up her Christmas tree decorated with a B-17 aircraft in memory her husband.

“I returned the medals to Chris in December to give to his mother for Christmas. Oliver P. Minihane's final mission was returning home to his wife for the holidays in a way that will not be soon forgotten.”

Fagan is the Official Historian of the Township of West Orange and has written four books on the subject. He can be reached at jfagan@westorange.org.