UPDATE: Once-lost medals returned to family of WWI major

Thursday, February 9, 2012 | 4:43 p.m. CST; updated 5:22 p.m. CST, Thursday, February 9, 2012

FESTUS — Nearly a century after Maj. Ernest Slusher earned two medals for bravery during World War I, his family has them back.

Missouri State Treasurer Clint Zweifel was in the St. Louis-area town of Festus on Thursday to return the Distinguished Service Cross and Croix de Guerre to Margaret Means, a relative of Slusher.

The medals were found in 2003 in a safe deposit box and turned over to Zweifel's office, which is responsible for unclaimed property in Missouri. Slusher's family hadn't known about the safe deposit box, and Means only learned about the missing medals last year when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported they were on display at the state Capitol in Jefferson City. She contacted the newspaper, which directed her to Zweifel's office.

"It's the end of a long journey for Maj. Slusher's medals and his family," Zweifel said at a ceremony.

Previously, medals that were found as unclaimed property in Missouri were auctioned off.

Zweifel pushed for a bill to end that practice, and Missouri lawmakers passed a measure in 2010 requiring all military medals and honors be turned over to the treasurer's office. They are held there until the recipient or his or her family can be found.

Slusher, born in Dover in 1875, was a doctor who served in the Spanish American War, then was a regimental surgeon in World War I. On Sept. 29-30, 1918, he was repeatedly gassed while tending to wounded American and French soldiers near Charpentry, France. He became so ill that he had to be carried away twice, Zweifel said. Yet Slusher kept going back to the front lines, caring for more of the wounded.

After the war, Slusher returned to his medical practice in Kansas City. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in May 1919. The date when he received the French medal wasn't clear. Slusher died in 1957 at the age of 82.

"Doc Slusher was extremely proud of these medals, and displayed them in his medical office in Kansas City for decades," Means said. "It is important to me that this piece of my family's history is back with us."

Means, 81, of Festus, said she will pass the medals on to her daughter and grandchildren. She has been tracing her family's history for more than four decades. Though a distant relative — she is the first cousin of Slusher's son's wife — Means' collection includes a photograph of Slusher wearing the Distinguished Cross medal, along with other medals and awards and the five letters that supported the awarding of the Distinguished Service Cross.

The medal is the second-highest for valor in the American military, topped only by the Medal of Honor. About 6,000 American soldiers received the Distinguished Service Cross in World War I. The Croix de Guerre, or "Cross of War," is awarded for heroism by the French Military to French soldiers and allies who come to the aid of France.

Zweifel said that without the 2010 law, Slusher's medals would have been sold at auction and "might have been lost forever." Most of the unclaimed property medals held by the Treasurer's office were, like Slusher's, found in abandoned safe deposit boxes, Zweifel said. Since the 2010 law took effect, Zweifel has returned 25 medals. He is working with military and veterans organizations to find the owners of 84 medals.

"Every medal that I hold has a story," Zweifel said.

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