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HOBART — Howard W. Popp thought he was just being taken to a party to celebrate his recent 94th birthday. But what the World War II veteran received Wednesday was an even greater surprise.

Surrounded by family and friends, Popp was honored with a Quilt of Valor at the Rees Funeral Home for his military service and sacrifice.   

The handmade star quilt was given to Popp by the Quilts of Valor Foundation. The organization’s mission is to provide healing quilts to service members and veterans touched by war. The awarded quilts serve as a tangible reminder of appreciation and gratitude.

“Oh my God. That’ll keep our (butt) warm. Wow,” Popp said sitting on a couch with former co-workers of the funeral home as local QOVF members laid the stitched quilt down on his lap. “Oh man, thank you!”

The Army veteran was nominated for the honor by his daughter, Donna Seeley, and grandson, Alek Seeley, whom he calls “his boy.”

“There is no other quilt like the one presented today,” said Flo Schneider of String-A-Long Stars and Stripes Quilts of Valor of Northwest Indiana during the ceremony, noting that Popp’s name and years of service have been placed on the fabric’s label. “We feel our Quilt of Valor represents a civilian equivalent to a Purple Heart Award. Our quilts are awarded, not just handed out, to say thank you for your service, sacrifice and valor in serving our nation. … He is most deserving.”

The day after he turned 18, Popp was drafted. He entered the armed forces Oct. 15, 1943, and served as a private in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, which provided support and service to many operations, including the Normandy campaign.

As part of his duties in World War II, Popp laid wire and hung communication cables for telegrams and communication that were vital to the success of several operations. He was also a Tech 5 Light Duty truck driver.

His Certificate of Merit — an award he received from Cmdr. Harold W. Rice after the Battle of the Bulge — proves it, too.

Popp was stationed in Germany during the Battle of the Bulge, which was the last major military counter-offensive against the Allied forces from December 1944 to January 1945.

He remembers one night in particular when the U.S. Army traveled across the Rhine River to deliver cables.

“We were half way across and (expletive) hit the fan,” Popp said. “I was driving a tank, we were supposed to bank it. I was backing it up, and all of a sudden a couple of German planes flew over. And the guy behind me, he had a gun and shot one down. He shot that son of a (expletive), and everyone was scared. We didn’t know what was going on.”

A German paratrooper had survived the attack and met them, sticking a piece of wood between the tank’s track, completely disabling it.

Despite the Americans being stuck, Popp continued the mission, saying, “I had to do the job with my hands.” He was waiting until it was dark and grabbed the cables to deliver, traveling through enemy minefields.

Sacrifices like those earned Popp many honors including the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign, Good Conduct and Honorable Service medals along with two Bronze Stars.  

“I told my mom when I left, I would do the job, and I did,” said Popp, who was honorably discharged from service on April 14, 1946, after serving 20 months in the European Theater.

After returning home, Popp worked for more than 30 years at the Rees Funeral Home in Hobart.

Jim Kraus worked in ambulance services at the funeral home alongside Popp. He described his friend as a “compassionate, good guy.”  

“He was a lot of fun, a straight shooter. We could have an ambulance call and find someone with alcohol poisoning, covered in feces all over them and he would treat them with the kindest care. He would be done and be using his four-letter words over here and you would never know it’s the same guy. He could be so compassionate, genuine and sincere,” Kraus said.

He said he didn’t even know Popp was a World War II veteran when they worked together at the funeral home. It just wasn’t something he talked about back then.

“I think he will remember this," Kraus said. "His family will certainly help him and remind him of where that quilt is at. This is a very kind act and it think it’s important he was recognized.”

Seeley said she was happy the family was able to coax her father out to the funeral home. Since the surprise ceremony, Popp has told his family that he thinks the quilt is beautiful and that he was happy to see old friends. 

"It was nice seeing the smiles on his face when he saw people he hadn't seen in a while, and the smiles on their face when they got to see him," Seeley said. "It was especially fun when he shared his stories and little remarks that made everyone chuckle and laugh. He was the same old Pops that we all know and love."

Though his hearing isn’t the best and it might take him a little longer to move around, Popp isn’t slowing down any time soon.

“Let’s see if I make it to 95,” Popp said with his Quilt of Valor in hand.

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Allie covers South Lake County municipal government, development and breaking news for The Times. She comes to the Region from Lebanon, Indiana. She is a proud Ball State University graduate.