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SALT LAKE CITY -- A Utah war hero and champion for veterans was buried Thursday with full military honors. George E. Wahlen was Utah's only surviving Medal of Honor recipient and leaves behind an enduring legacy.
Those who knew Wahlen call him a great hero, a great patriot and a great human being. The Ogden native fought to save the lives of Marines on Iwo Jima in World War II. He survived serious wounds and received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism.
After an extended illness, at the age of 84, Wahlen died Friday at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City, a facility that bears his name.
"He would say, if he were here, it's not about him. It's about those who continue to serve and those who did not return," his son, Blake Wahlen, said.
The Medal of Honor is the military's highest award for valor, but Wahlen's family describes him as a humble man.
"He would have never expected this, and I don't think we ever expected the gratitude we've received from so many. It's really been great," said son Brock Wahlen.
On Feb. 19, 1945, U.S. Marines stormed the Pacific island of Iwo Jima and ran into fierce fighting. Wahlen was a 21-year-old Navy medic attached to a Marine platoon. Several years ago, he told KSL News he was anxious not to let anyone down. "I guess I was always scared, but I think I was more scared I wouldn't do it," he said.
Instead, Wahlen displayed extraordinary valor. He aided wounded Marines under heavy fire. A grenade knocked him out and sprayed his face with shrapnel, but he helped save 14 Marines that day.
Days later, he was wounded a second and then a third time, but he refused evacuation and kept helping fallen Marines. For that, President Harry Truman awarded him the Medal of Honor.
After the war, Wahlen served in the Army 20 years and worked at the Veterans Administration 14 years. "Realizing what so many veterans go through and the sacrifice they make, that's why I've been involved with the nursing home and cemetery and looking out for veterans," Wahlen told KSL News.
He also successfully helped push for a new Northern Utah Veterans Nursing Home in Ogden; it is now under construction.
Wahlen is survived by his wife of 64 years, Melba, five children, 27 grandchildren and 42 great-grandchildren.