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After 68 years, former Packer and veteran to get war medals

Former Green Bay Packer Alex Wizbicki of Superior will be receiving some lost World War II medals in a ceremony on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

A veteran and former Green Bay Packer will receive his World War II medals at the Richard I. Bong Heritage Center on Friday, more than 68 years after he earned them.

Alex Wizbicki will be presented a complete set of Pacific Theatre medals and the Bronze Star for bravery. Fellow veterans John Vaski and Cliff Hughes applied for the replacement medals nearly 1½ years ago when they learned Wizbicki had lost the originals in his many moves around the country.

"He had them coming," said Hughes, a maintenance worker at the Richard I. Bong Historical Center in Superior. "What he's done, he's a real hero."

Wizbicki's daughter, Gloria Leighton, said she is thrilled about the upcoming presentation.

"I still get choked up that he fought so hard and he made it," she said.

As a college student at Holy Cross and a rising football star, Wizbicki had his eyes trained on the future in 1941. As a history major and a second-generation immigrant, he also had a deep sense of pride and loyalty in the United States of America. His parents came to the country from Poland.

"They had choices that they didn't have in Europe. ... When you're denied and then when you come into a country like America and you do what you want to do, you talk about being let out of bondage," Wizbicki said.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, perspectives shifted across the country. Wizbicki left his studies to enlist in the Marine Corps on July 1, 1943, "because I love this country very, very much."

Wizbicki was trained in reconnaissance and served with the 6th Marine Division in operations on Guadalcanal and Okinawa. It was on Okinawa he earned the Bronze Star for "heroic achievement" on May 22, 1945.

He led a night reconnaissance patrol across an illuminated river and 500 yards behind hostile lines to get information on where large Japanese guns were mounted. When attacked, he led his own and two other patrols out of enemy territory.

Wizbicki was training for the invasion of Japan when America dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Japanese surrendered. He later served in China, repatriating and protecting the Japanese from the Chinese. Honorably discharged in April 1946, he returned to college.

After receiving a degree in business and management, the Buffalo Bills snapped up Wizbicki to play as running and defensive backs. Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him originally, but the Bills offered him an extra $1,500 a year.

"I had just graduated from Holy Cross and that amount of money was a king's ransom in 1947," he said.

After three years with the Buffalo Bills, Wizbicki played one year with the Green Bay Packers in 1950. That was back in the days when protective equipment was smaller, and so were salaries.

"I don't think the team made millions of dollars, much less the individuals," Wizbicki said. Although he played for love of the game, the possibility of injury was too great. He moved on to sell spirits and wine but retained pride in his military and football experiences. He passed that on to his daughter and grandchildren.

"I think from my father I learned a great deal of love for the country," Leighton said. "And how these wonderful people fought for our country and they didn't even question their own life. It was so important for them. The thought of being hurt, that wasn't the question. It was to protect their beautiful America."

For almost a decade, Wizbicki has been lending his volunteer hours -- and a bit of star power -- to the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center.

"He's just a perfect gentleman: polite, nice, very intelligent guy," Hughes said. "And of course, he was a Green Bay Packer." Many visitors have sat down to quiz Wizbicki about his football career and ask for autographs. The 91-year-old has always obliged.

"We would never deny people any autographs," he said. "You are a Packer; you carry the banner of a Packer."

Wizbicki also volunteered with local football teams and worked at Keyport Lounge until December.

"My dad, he's not one to talk about what he's done," Leighton said. Instead, he focused on his fellow servicemen and football teammates.

A Flag of Remembrance will be flown at 9 a.m. Friday outside the Bong Center for the members of the 6th Marine Division who have died. Following the flag ceremony, a Marine sergeant will present Wizbicki with his medals. Vaski encouraged anyone who knows the Superior veteran to stop by for the event.

"Just in tribute to a gentleman," he said.

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