On Dec. 6, 1946, President Harry S Truman pinned seven medals on the chest of Army Sgt. Llewellyn M. “Al” Chilson. Conspicuously absent was the nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. Perhaps that explains why Truman said, for all those attending the White House ceremony to hear: “This is the most remarkable list of citations I have ever seen. For any one of them, this young man is entitled to all the country has to offer. These ought to be worth a Medal of Honor – that’s what I think about it.
But the Army apparently didn’t. Although he is one of the most decorated American soldiers of the twentieth century, Al Chilson never received the highest award. “He was recommended for the Medal of Honor by two separate officers for two separate events,” said his daughter Marilyn Chilson in a 2005 interview. “He deserved it and they neglected him.”
Born in Dayton, Ohio in 1920, Chilson grew up in Chicago and was driving a truck for a living when he was drafted into the Army in 1942. After basic training, he joined Company G, 179th Infantry Regiment, part of the 45th Infantry Division. He landed in North Africa in June 1943 and took part in the invasion of Sicily the following month. Private Chilson was still with the 45th when the unit landed at Anzio in February 1944. Shortly thereafter, he received his first combat decoration – a Purple Heart – when a shell fragment hit him in the face.
Six months later, in August 1944, Chilson, now a sergeant, landed in southern France as part of Operation ANVIL. In the months that followed, Chilson showed that he literally was a “one-man Army.” On Nov. 26, 1944, near Denshein, France, Chilson single-handedly charged a German roadblock, killing three German defenders with hand grenades. He forced nine others to surrender. For this act of gallantry, Chilson received the Silver Star.
Four months later, during the night of March 15, 1945, Chilson was leading two platoons of Company G. Near the town of Gernsheim, Germany, the Americans were pinned down by German automatic weapons fire coming from a dike along the Rhine River. As it was dark, it was difficult to locate the German machine-gunners. But Chilson had a solution: he set fire to a horse-drawn ammunition wagon and, using the light of the fire from the burning wagon, rushed along the dike with his carbine and killed the German machine gunners. Chilson then crawled alone for about 200 yards into the darkness in order to call in American artillery fire to destroy two more German defensive positions.
As dawn broke a few hours later, Chilson volunteered with two other men to silence yet another series of German machine gun positions. Using white phosphorous and fragmentation grenades, Chilson led the attacks – which resulted in the killing of five Germans and the surrender of 41 more. That afternoon, Chilson and the 30 Americans he was leading attacked a German command post – overrunning it. The German first sergeant was so demoralized by the relentless attack of the GIs on his unit that he surrendered his entire company – to Chilson.
There were still other firefights that afternoon against the enemy. The result: by the end of the day on March 15, 1945, Chilson and his men had not only taken Gernsheim, but had killed, wounded or captured about 200 Germans and seized 13 enemy machine guns and 20 mm cannons. It was a remarkable feat of combat prowess. Since Chilson alone was responsible for killing or wounding some 30 of the enemy, his heroism under fire earned that day earned him the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), second only to the Medal of Honor as an award for combat gallantry.
But Chilton was not yet finished as a one-man Army. Two weeks later, near Afschaffenburg, Germany, Chilson and the men of Company G were in reserve while Companies E and F attacked German positions. When those two companies were held up by heavy enemy resistance, Company G was given the mission to swing around the right flank of Company E and hit the Germans from the rear. When Company G subsequently was held up at a roadblock, Chilson ordered his men to lay down a base of fire while he stood alone on the turret of a tank. For the next 40 minutes, standing exposed on this vehicle, Chilson spotted for this tank and two others as they fired 30 high explosive shells and 3,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition against the Germans. The result: 14 Germans killed and 40 more captured.
For a time, it seemed nothing could stop Al Chilson. The following day, on March 31, Chilson again led his men in an attack on German positions in Horsenthal. In the firefight that followed, two German machine gun nests were destroyed, six enemy soldiers killed and another seven taken prisoner. Chilson’s heroism that day ultimately resulted in the award of a second Silver Star.
On April 25, 1945, Chilson and his men were in Meilenholen when the Germans opened fire on them. Undeterred by the bullets hitting all around him, Chilson got into a jeep with only a machine gun and, all alone and exposed, drove down the main street in the middle of the town, firing as he went. When the smoke cleared, more than 35 Germans lay on the ground. A short time later, when his fellow soldiers on a reconnaissance mission were stopped by enemy cannon fire, Chilson got onto an abandoned Wehrmacht motorcycle and charged the German defensive positions. Although the motorcycle was shot out from beneath him, Chilson rolled to his feet, charged the German machine gun nest, and killed its defenders with a hand grenade. For this brave feat, he would later be awarded his second Distinguished Service Cross.
Two days later, Chilson’s heroics earned him a third DSC. After his unit had crossed the Danube River and was entering Neuberg, Chilson and his men were held up by withering machine gun fire coming from the second story of an apartment building. Realizing that his men would be killed or wounded if the German fire continued, Chilson rushed through the hail of bullets across the street, climbed the stars, and charged into the apartment. A well-placed hand grenade thrown by Chilson killed two Germans, and the remaining eight enemy soldiers, stunned by Chilson’s aggressiveness, immediately surrendered.
When the fighting ended in Europe in May 1945, Chilson had spent a remarkable 511 days in combat. In August 1945, on the basis of his outstanding combat performance, Chilson’s regimental commander recommended him for the Medal of Honor. While Gen. Joseph T. McNarney, the commander of all U.S. forces in Europe, agreed with this recommendation, and urged the War Department to award the medal to Chilson, this did not happen.
The Pentagon decided that Chilson’s heroics, while “highly commendable,” were insufficient for the nation’s highest award. This explains why, when Truman presented Al Chilson his decorations in the December 1946 White House ceremony, Chilson received so many decorations in lieu of the Medal of Honor: three DSCs, a Silver Star (his second), the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart (his second).
Chilson left active duty in August 1945, but he missed the Army and re-enlisted in November 1947. For the next 17 years, he served in a variety of assignments. Master Sgt. Llewellyn M. “Al” Chilson retired at Fort Sill, Okla., in 1964. He then moved to Tacoma, Wash., where he died in 1981 at the age of 61. Today, it is hard to believe that Chilson’s heroics did not merit the nation’s highest military award. He did, in fact, deserve it. Truman was right.