By ZACH BENOIT
Of The Gazette Staff
A man thought to be the world's oldest living Purple Heart recipient died Tuesday at the age of 100.
Joe Papez, a longtime Red Lodge resident and decorated World War II veteran, died from complications from a heart attack.
Born Dec. 19, 1907, Papez was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1940 at the age of 33. He earned the nickname "Pop" from others draftees, most of them in their late teens and 20s.
Papez served as a technical sergeant in the 3rd Infantry Division of the 15th Infantry Regiment. During the war, he was wounded three times - in North Africa, Sicily and Italy - and earned three Purple Hearts. He also earned a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for bravery. In a December 2007 Gazette article marking his 100th birthday, Papez recounted his third injury, which nearly took his life. In Italy, during the battle of Anzio in 1944, he and a friend named Don from Great Falls were talking about how they were the only survivors from their company of 136 men. Just a few hours later, German artillery started raining down on them, killing Don and severely injuring Papez.
"Your buddies in the foxhole are the closest that you'll ever have," he said. "It was so hard to lose Don."
His days in the service stayed with him for the rest of his life. After returning to the U.S. in 1946, Papez marched every year in the Memorial Day parade in Red Lodge. He said last year that he would gladly serve as a soldier again, doing "the same thing over again - and better."
Last October, Sen. Jon tester, D-Mont., honored Papez in Red Lodge as a decorated WWII veteran and hero by presenting him with a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol in Papez's honor, framed copies of a congressional tribute to Papez and a letter from Gordon Mansfield, then the acting Veterans Affairs sectretary.
At Papez's 100th birthday party in December, more than 100 people attended and he was presented with a plaque from the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
"Joe Papez saluted our country for a century; now let America salute Joe Papez," tester said Friday. "He was and always will be a Montana hero. Joe's distinguished life was defined by patriotism and service. We'll never forget his determination, the respect he always had for his Army buddies and the pride he took in our country and our flag."
Funeral services for Papez will be held at 1:30 p.m. on June 14 at the Veterans Memorial Civic Center in Red Lodge. Interment with full military honors will be at the Red Lodge Cemetery.