State seeks owners of medals of heroism sitting unclaimed in Salem

Navy insignia found inside a deposit box once owned by a George B. James was sent from an Umpqua Bank in Bandon. (Courtesy/Oregon Department of State Lands)

Tucked away inside a vault within the Oregon Department of State Lands sit several safes. 

Inside these safes rest mementos such old photos and baseball cards, money and coins, jewelry, gold bars, rings and stamp collections.

Even odd things like baby teeth and locks of hair are secured in the state safes. 

The agency put out a call ahead of Veterans Day, coming up Monday, to reunite families with military medals and artifacts that fell to the state’s care.

The agency’s charge is to try to return such items to their owners or heirs where others have failed.

The medals and other possessions were left inside safe deposit boxes held by banks or assisted living facilities and law offices where their owners either forgot about them or died without a will or known heir.

While most items are either auctioned off to raise money for the state Common School Fund or destroyed after a period of time, military effects are protected under Oregon law in perpetuity. 

This World War II Victory Medal was found in a safety deposit box sent to the Department of State Lands by a Bank of American in Portland owned by Richard Scott Rolf. (Courtesy/Oregon Department of State Lands)

A bank box rented to Richard Rolfe Scott of Portland yielded Army items that included 10 patches, seven ribbons, five medals, four rank and insignia, and three pins.

A box rented to Barbara G. Roney of Portland held four medals, four ribbons and two pins from the Army.

A box rented to George B. James of Bandon contained a Navy insignia.

The military medals program and corresponding registry is fairly new, according to Claudia Ciobanu, manager of the agency’s Trust Property Division. While no veterans have yet been reunited their property yet, the state hopes a fresh push will allow veterans or their heirs to more easily identify their property. 

“The law was passed to manage these things differently in order to honor the courage and sacrifice that they represent. We recognize the history and symbolism behind these medals and want to do our best to return them to their owners,” Ciobanu said. 

The list includes 18 medals, countless ribbons and dozens of insignia pieces from all branches of the U.S. military.

From a now defunct bank in Grants Pass to a Key Bank in Portland, the military heirlooms have come into State Lands’ possession from far and wide.

The oldest and most common medals in the state’s possession date back to World War II, including two for service in the European and African theaters from 1941-46 and a handful of WWII Victory Medals, as well as corresponding awards for service in the American and Asiatic-Pacific Campaigns during the same period. 

Several National Defense Service Medals are included in the collection, as well as an Army Good Conduct Medal — one of the oldest American military awards established in 1869. 

A Purple Heart Medal from a box co-owned by Barbara G., Bruce R. and William L. Roney of Portland waits in a vault at Department of State Lands for its owner to claim it. (Courtesy/Oregon Department of State Lands)

One Purple Heart is in the state’s possession too, the oldest award continuously issued to those either injured or killed in combat since its original form, the Badge of Military Merit, was awarded to members of President George Washington’s Continental Army. The medal was established in its current form in 1917.

The collection also holds three medals issued for service during the Vietnam War, including one with three bronze stars denoting that its owner served three separate tours.

 “Our veterans and their families have sacrificed so much, and these medals and insignia are physical representations of that sacrifice and their service,” said Vicki Walker, director of State Lands. “On this Veterans Day we want to make a special push to help reunite vets and their families with these highly significant keepsakes.”

Veterans or family members seeking lost military medals can check the State Lands’ online registry which includes information on what bank or institution the deposit box came from, to whom it was rented and the corresponding address of that person.

According to Ciobanu, the process can take as little as a couple weeks if the claimant is the owner, but much longer if an heir does not have proof of their relation to the original owner.

Sam Stites is a reporter for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of Pamplin Media Group, EO Media Group and Salem Reporter.