WASHINGTON – Bowie resident Douglas Dillard was one of the few men on hand Friday when the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion was honored for “exceptional heroism” in the Battle of the Bulge.
More than 500 of the 643 men in the unit were killed or froze to death in the bitterly cold fighting in late 1944 and early 1945, in what would be the last major German offensive of World War II.
And more than half of the men who survived the battle would not live to see themselves honored Friday, victims of the 56 years it took the Pentagon to recognize their valor.
Only about 35 members of the 551st were on hand to receive the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest possible award that can be given to a group of soldiers. But, like many of those present, Dillard, 75, said he was joyful at the award, and did not dwell on the half-century delay it took to get it.
“I think we made a great contribution,” said Dillard, who was a mere teen when he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. “We did some tremendous fighting and I’m very proud to accept this award today.”
Dillard said he finally felt that “history has been properly covered” with the award, and he has gained the respect that other units did after the war.
“These are ordinary men, who rose to extraordinary heights,” said Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki at a colorful ceremony filled with applause and several standing ovations Friday.
“They are genuine heroes from that greatest generation,” Shinseki said, with footage from the Battle of the Bulge as his backdrop.
Their heroism was not recognized until now, in part because of the severe losses the 551st suffered.
With more than four-fifths of the unit killed, the battalion was disbanded after the battle and its remaining110 soldiers were placed into other units for the rest of the war. Paperwork seeking a citation for the unit went nowhere — records were lost or burned, another casualty of the battle.
Two attempts at winning a citation in the early 1990s failed. But John Norton of Kensington took up the fight after he was contacted by Greg Orfalea, a District man who was researching a book on the “lost battalion.”
Armed with new research by Orfalea, Norton – who was in the 82nd Airborne, of which the 551st was part — took the issue to his congresswoman, Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda. She helped win the citation for the unit last April.
“I am so proud of them. Today promises that their services will not be forgotten,” Morella said Friday.
Orfalea, whose father was a messenger in the 551st, said the unit spearheaded the Allied counteroffensive against the German Army on the northern shoulder of the Ardennes forest in Belgium from Dec. 27, 1944, to Jan. 8, 1945. The unit was credited with capturing the first Nazi general in the Germans’ last major push of the war.
The 551st is one of only three units that served in World War II that has received the prestigious Presidential Unit Citation based on lost records retrieved, new research and other revelations long after the war.
A crowd of more than 300 soldiers, family and friends — many wielding camcorders and wearing smiles — were entertained during the award ceremony with a procession and song routine by the current 82nd Airborne and jazz music.
“I thought it was the greatest tribute,” said Dick Durkee, a 551st veteran who now lives in College Park. “It’s remarkable how they (the Army) responded, we’re wonderfully happy that they’re all so proud of us.”
In addition to Durkee and Dillard, other surviving members of the battalion living in Maryland are John Reed of Baltimore, John Kidd of Millard and Ben Zinger of Havre de Grace. Those three did not attend Friday’s ceremony.
Durkee was surrounded by three generations of family members after the ceremony, including his grandson, Will Durkee, 17, who is a junior member of the ROTC in Annapolis. Because of his grandfather, Will said he hopes to attend the Naval Academy or West Point when he graduates from high school.
“I didn’t realize until today how much of an influence he has on me,” Will said. “I am very proud of him, and he is an inspiration.”