Royals honor Topekan, World War II veteran Jim Freel with Buck O'Neil Legacy Seat

(WIBW) - As the national anthem played on the Fourth of July at Kauffman Stadium, Jim Freel stood still, holding a salute while donning a Marines shirt.

Courtesy of Fox Sports Kansas City

The seat he stood over is like none other at the ballpark. It's known as the Buck O'Neil Legacy Seat.

The Royals honor a recipient who exemplifies the giving and serving spirit of O'Neil every game by giving them the seat he sat in as a fan and scout. O'Neil was a former Negro Leagues star who became the first African American coach in Major League Baseball.

For this holiday, Freel was a fitting recipient.

"I'm a patriot," Freel said. "A downright patriot. I love this country. I had the privilege of fighting for our country when we were attacked by the Japanese."

The 96-year-old World War II veteran fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima as a Marine. And he still carries pieces of one of our country's most famous battles.

They are scattered around a den decorated with relics of service. He first pulls a small jar of sand off of a mantle. It's from the beaches of Iwo Jima. He pours a little into his hand and explains.

"It's real sharp and will cut right through your dungarees," Freel said, running a finger over the sand. "You'd crawl on it and it'd actually make you bleed."

Then, there's a wall with multiple military pictures, many of which feature Iwo Jima.

"My unit landed right next to the volcano on Green Beach," Freel said, as he points to a picture of the volcano. "I was in the second wave. It was different than any other island that we hit.

"Previously, the Japanese tried their best to keep us off the shore. But on Iwo, they let us land and get up beyond the beaches before they opened fire."

And as he crawled on the beach, that's when Freel got what he calls his Japanese souvenir. He was struck with shrapnel, or bullet fragments, from enemy fire. All of these years later, some of it remains in his neck.

The wound earned him a Purple Heart award. Two months after he was wounded, he hitchhiked back home to Topeka and experienced a loss: the death of his brother.

"This flag was presented to my mother at my brother's funeral when they brought the body back," Freel said as he pointed to a framed and folded flag above a picture of his brother.

Billy Bob Freel was killed at the Battle of Okinawa in May of 1945 just three days after his 21st birthday.

"I think about him quite often, especially when I come down into this room," Freel said. "He always had a smile on his face, except if you rattled him. But he had an Irish temper to go with it. And I miss him. A great inspiration to me."

His brother's memory inspired Freel to a life of public service. He served as the chief of Topeka Police as well as a special agent for the U.S. Department of Labor.

"He's devoted his life to public service," his son Rick Pannone said. "Nothing seems to really rattle him at all. He just goes about everything on an even keel."

And that's what led some friends whom he has coffee with to nominate him for the Legacy Seat. Freel waved to the crowd and even took his hat off when he was recognized by the team. But he wants to send a selfless message when folks look at his life.

"I don't want them to think of me as an individual," Freel said. "I want them to think of me as part of the biggest team or brotherhood of military people that has ever been assembled. I'm just grateful that our nation can afford to have the relaxation of sports teams."

And that's due, in part, to people like him.