NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — There was a very special Veterans Day reunion on Thursday in Queens. Families traveled across the country for a touching surprise.

A Silver Star, one of the nation’s highest military medals, was returned to relatives of a young New Yorker who made the ultimate sacrifice trying to save another soldier In World War II, CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff reported exclusively.

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Family members said it’s an incredible story of brotherhood on the battle field — three men bound together by fate, destiny and sacrifice. And their families came together for the first time 76 years later.

They all gathered around the grave in Queens of 21-year-old New Yorker William Kane, who was killed in Germany just before the end of World War II. Kane’s relatives had no idea until recently that he died a hero.

“All we knew he was hurt in a tank explosion. We didn’t know he went in to save anybody,” nephew Danny Sullivan said.

The story came to light after a Purple Heart was recently found in a tackle box from a Midwestern flea market. It belonged to the soldier Kane tried to save, Edward Ryan.

(Photo: CBS2)

The Purple Heart was returned to Ryan’s family by the organization Purple Hearts Reunited, which discovered the bravery of the two crew members who tried to save Ryan from their tank under enemy fire.

Ryan didn’t make it and neither did Kane.

“Uncle Billy went back in at 21 years old with his lieutenant because no one gets left behind,” said Maureen Sullivan, Kane’s niece.

The heroic lieutenant was Thomas Carr. His grandson, Mark Suthard, traveled from Florida to join the families at the grave.

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“This is one of a million moments of heroism in that war,” Suthard said.

Kane’s family was surprised with a special gift — Pvt. First Class Kane’s Silver Star.

The symbol of gallantry had been packed away in a dusty box of his young widow, who never spoke of her loss. Her family from New Jersey found the Silver Star in 2006, but never new its significance until now.

“I was picking up boxes. They were falling part. But I found the Silver Star,” said Betty Ann Easton, the widow’s daughter-in-law. “It represents the best of our country and why we are all here, why we continue to live in freedom.”

The story of the sacrifice of all three men will now live on.

“It took generations to get here and it will stay in our family and be cherished forever,” Sullivan said.

Purple Hearts Reunited, a nonprofit, has returned more than 850 medals of valor to families and museums. Much more than just metal and cloth, they are the symbols of veterans’ sacrifice and the freedom we owe to them.

“It’s an honor to serve those who have served, to ensure their stories are resurrected if they’ve been buried and live on,” said Erin Faith Allen, director of Purple Hearts Reunited.

It’s never too late to remember and honor gallantry, bravery and the sacrifice of so many.

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Lt. Carr, the only survivor of the tank attack, also received a Silver Star for his actions, in 1945.

Carolyn Gusoff