SHIRLEY Hilycord still remembers the built-up shoe her husband, Bob, wore throughout their marriage. “His one leg was four or five inches shorter than the other,” she recalled last week.
The deformity was the result of injuries suffered when his plane was shot down behind enemy lines during the Korean War. His condition only worsened during the 16 months he was held as a prisoner of war.
She remembers the stories of his confinement — the starvation, the freezing temperatures that sometimes dropped well below zero, the constant boredom imposed by his injuries that kept him essentially immobile.
She remembers the trips to military and veterans hospitals from the time of his release from the POW camp in 1953 to his death in 2001.
And she remembers the frustrating attempts to get his country to recognize those sacrifices through a medal normally awarded to those in the military who suffered combat injuries, the Purple Heart. It is the last memory that has frustrated her so much over the past 14 years.
“I finally gave up in my own mind,” she said. “I contacted so many offices only to be told that they needed more information or referred to some other official. I felt like I was batting my head against a brick wall.”
It is a frustration that was eased several months ago when Tom Crawford, Bartholomew County Veterans Affairs officer, told her that he had received word from the military that the family’s request for a Purple Heart had been granted. The medal will be formally presented to Shirley and other family members at a special ceremony on the grounds of the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans at 10 a.m. July 10.
In Shirley’s mind, credit for attaining the long-overdue recognition goes solely to Crawford and her son, Mark.
“Tom worked like crazy on this,” she said. “In the end he got the job done.”
It was not easy.
“This all started when I took over the Veterans Affairs job (2013),” he said. “Mrs. Hilycord had come into my office to get help on a separate matter relating to her husband’s service, and after we got that taken care of, she mentioned the story of her husband’s imprisonment and her attempts to get the Purple Heart for him.”
Fortunately, Shirley had many of her husband’s records, including his discharge papers, which confirmed his wounds and his months of being held prisoner. However there was no mention of his being awarded a Purple Heart. It was a strange omission, especially given the details of his confinement.
Bob provided some of those details in a 1999 interview. The 1950 Columbus High School graduate had enlisted in the Air Force in 1951 after war had broken out in Korea and was assigned as an engineer-gunner on a three-man bomber crew.
His first mission over North Korea was his last. His plane was hit by enemy fire, and the crew was forced to parachute out over enemy territory. In ejecting from the plane, Hilycord was injured and knocked unconscious. When he woke up, his severely broken leg was being attended to by a farmer. It was only a temporary reprieve. Shortly after the landing he was taken prisoner by Chinese soldiers and carried on a long and painful ride over mountain trails to a prisoner of war compound.
He spent his first four months in a primitive hospital. “The beds were boards put across sawhorses, and they’d give us two blankets, one beneath you and the other on top. The temperatures sometimes got to 35 and 40 degrees below,” he recalled in that interview.
He was covered in a cast that wrapped around his waist and ran down his leg. “They put cotton wadding inside so my leg wouldn’t rub up against it. The problem was that lice would get into the cotton. I couldn’t use one hand because it was partially paralyzed, but I used the other to reach inside the cast, pull out the cotton, mash it to kill the lice and put it back in the cast.”
Matters didn’t improve much when he was transferred from the hospital to the general population. The greatest enemy was hunger. Food amounted to a bowl of a watery turnip soup twice a day. “They’d feed us at 10 in the morning and again at 4 in the afternoon,” he recalled. “Day and night we’d sit around talking about food, our favorite meals, that sort of thing.”
Sometimes the need for sustenance created macabre situations. “In one of the other huts a prisoner died, but they kept his body propped up against the wall so that the guards would think that he was alive. That way they could get an extra ration. They did that for 18 days.”
Shortly after the signing of the armistice ending armed hostilities, Bob and thousands of other prisoners were released. His journey home through hospitals in Japan and Hawaii was well chronicled in newspaper reports and photos. He spent several months recuperating at a hospital at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Despite that well-documented record, he received little recognition of his service from military officials.
“Bob tried to get some of the medals that were due him, and he did receive one or two, but he was never able to get the Purple Heart,” his widow recalled. “Shortly after he died, I took up the challenge and ran into the same problems he encountered.”
So did Tom Crawford. “I contacted a representative of the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New Windsor, New York, to see if there was a record for Mr. Hilycord, but they had nothing. He referred me to the Department of the Air Force, but they responded saying we didn’t have enough medical documents. We sent them all his medical records from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.”
The local VA officer went outside the military in his quest. He contacted the Washington offices of Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.) and Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.). At the same time, Shirley’s son, Mark, who lives in Arizona, enlisted the help of Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.). Ironically, McCain had been held as a prisoner of war for several years during the Vietnam War.
The multifaceted approach yielded some results. On April 9, 2014, Bob was awarded posthumously the Air and Prisoner of War medals. Unfortunately the request for the Purple Heart was rejected at that time.
In June 2014, Tom received a letter from a military aide in the Congressional Inquiry division of the Pentagon, which requested more medical information and, if possible, any eyewitness account from an individual who saw Hilycord injured and could attest to the circumstances surrounding his personal account.
“I saved that letter,” the VA officer said. “I still get a good laugh out of it.”
The multiple efforts of so many paid off when the paperwork for Bob’s Purple Heart medal was completed in December 2014. The formal presentation ceremony was scheduled for July 10 in order for his family to come together in one place.
Among those family members will be his grandson, who served a tour of duty with the Indiana Army National Guard in Afghanistan. He bears the name of his grandfather, William Robert Hilycord.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.