When the 2018 Woolsey Fire tore through Kanan destroying nearly everything in its path, it took with it the home of James (known as Jim) and Marcella Shirk. The elderly couple had lived on their property since building a home there in 1977. Twenty years before, one of the couple’s two daughters moved into their modest home while the Shirks moved to a smaller guest apartment next door. While the main house survived the blaze, the couple’s barn-like apartment burned.
“We lost everything,” Marcella said.
That included Jim’s Purple Heart medal he received for injuries suffered on the battlefield or shore during the Battle of Normandy—D-Day—in 1944. That epic invasion is credited for the liberation of northern France from Nazi control.
Jim Shirk was just 17 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. The now-94-year-old recently recounted he was aboard an LST—or tank landing ship. LSTs supported amphibious operations by carrying tanks, cargo and troops directly to shore with no docks or piers. Shirk was a gunner. On his second or third trip, Shirk’s LST was either hit or struck a mine.
According to Marcella, her husband of 63 years “remembers very little after that. When he really did wake up he was in Norfolk, Vir., back in the states. He recuperated for seven to eight months. He was pronounced dead actually—twice,” she found out from her brother-in-law.
“He never would talk about it,” Marcella said. She found out through family members that he received a Purple Heart because he was “wounded pretty badly with his back.”
Jim described awakening back in the United States.
“When I woke up, I didn’t realize where I was. I’d come in and out [of consciousness],” he said. “When we were over there laying on the beach we’d need a shot [of liquor] to calm us down until they could get a medical ship in to move us to Norfolk.”
Shirk received three other medals during his WWII service.
After the fire, the medals were gone. However, when the Malibu Navy League found out Jim’s story, they arranged to get his Purple Heart reawarded. A small ceremony was recently held with a new medal presented to the veteran.
“It was very gratifying, to say the least, that they returned it,” the 94-year-old remarked. “They were so enthused about doing it.”
Jim recounted that four of his seven siblings were in the service for the second world war.
“I finally got permission from my parents [at age 17], because my sister was a nurse with Patton’s third army in North Africa and I had a brother in the Marine Corps at Pearl Harbor,” Jim said—according to Marcella, Jim’s brother and sister-in-law were killed in that bombing.
“My other brother was wounded badly at the Battle of the Bulge,” Jim continued. “My dad was in WWI.”
The Shirks are now back on their own property, but in a temporary modular unit. Marcella said she’s been struggling with the city for a permanent foundation.
“They’ve been yanking us around,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe what we’re going through.”
Jim has had ongoing back issues from his war injury and Marcella said he recently underwent surgery.
John Payne, president of the Malibu Navy League, who helped arrange for the medal to be returned, said that when he learned that Jim Shirk had lost the heart to his Purple Heart awarded him during WWII in the invasion of Normandy, “It was our job to replace it.”
“That’s what we did,” Payne said. “We’re proud of the veterans of WWII. We recognize their services, their dedication and their sacrifices. Earning a Purple Heart is certainly beyond the call of duty and we appreciate all they did for us and the world.”
Marcella added, “He and his family—they all paid the price. They all wanted to fight for this country.”
When The Malibu Times thanked Shirk for his service, he responded: “You’re welcome. It was just something that had to be done at the time.”