Blagojevich signs legislation Sunday. Law to take effect Jan. 1.

When the time came to renew his driver’s license last year, Jim Underwood headed to an Illinois Secretary of State’s facility in Lacon, where something caught his eye.


"I noticed this beautiful display on the wall of all of the military license plates," said Underwood, who lives about 20 miles away in Metamora.


The World War II Army veteran also noticed a striking omission. The display did not include the Distinguished Service Cross.


That honor was awarded in 1945 to Underwood and three of his buddies for their recovery of 39 soldiers — some dead, some alive and some wounded — in a daring river rescue in Luzon, the Philippines.


"There was a strong battery of Japanese on the other side, which we were aware of. But due to a breakdown in communication the order was given to cross the river anyhow," Underwood recalled.


Using two borrowed dugouts, "we went across that river under fire — mortar fire, rifle fire, machine-gun fire, you name it."


Puzzled over why Illinois offered no specialty license plate for Distinguished Service Cross recipients, Underwood wrote to Secretary of State Jesse White’s office. White suggested Underwood contact his local lawmakers about proposing a state law.


Underwood followed through. Rep. David Leitch, R-Peoria, introduced House Bill 4648, and it won the General Assembly’s approval earlier this year.


But it still needed Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s signature to become law. About a week ago, Underwood wrote to the governor and urged him to sign the measure.


"I’d like to display it (the license plate) a few years before the good Lord calls me," said Underwood, 88.


Though he never heard back from the governor, Underwood thinks Blagojevich "got the message" because he signed the Distinguished Service Cross legislation on Sunday. The law takes effect Jan. 1.


It couldn’t be determined on Monday whether the governor got Underwood’s letter.


But Blagojevich spokesman Brian Williamsen said, "The governor was pleased to sign this bill into law, as it allows those who served in our nation’s armed forces and were awarded one of its highest honors to be recognized for their service."


Leitch said he is "thrilled to death" that Underwood will be able to obtain the specialty license plate "that will reflect his heroism and his contribution to the country."


Adriana Colindres can be reached at (217) 782-6292 or adriana.colindres@sj-r.com.


Specialty license plates


More than a dozen Illinois specialty license plates recognize military service. Some, like the new Distinguished Service Cross plate, are available only for people who received a certain military honor or for the surviving spouses of individuals who received the honor.


Here is a sampling of other military-themed specialty license plates and the number of sets of plates the state had issued as of May 30, according to the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office:


Congressional Medal of Honor: 4


Purple Heart: 5,114


Silver Star: 231


Bronze Star: 3,062