60 years of waiting

82-year-old Art Shilo finally gets his Purple Heart

Art Shilo has a faint scar on his jaw that’s been there for nearly 60 years. He has other aches and pains that are invisible to others, but not to him. The scar, the pain — all of it came from the same incident, and now Art Shilo has something to show for them: a Purple Heart.

This is Shilo’s second Purple Heart. The first one was given to him after World War II, then abruptly snatched away. It’s taken him more than half a century to get it back.

During a ceremony on Friday at Port Marine Park in Cascade Locks, where Shilo has lived for 20 years, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden finally presented the 82-year-old World War II veteran with the medal in proper fashion.

“We’ve gathered here to correct what I call a mistake,” Walden told the crowd of about 75 well-wishers. Along with handing over the prestigious medal, Walden presented Shilo with an American flag accompanied by a certificate stating that it had been flown over the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2002. The flag was one of several flown that day to mark the anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Walden told the crowd.

“Thank you for your service to our great country,” Walden said. “We appreciate all you’ve done for us. This is just a small token.”

A member of the Yakama Tribe, Art Shilo was born in Ahtanum, Wash., and grew up on his family’s farm. When he was old enough, he moved to Portland and was working in the shipyards when he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps at age 22. Trained as a ball-turret gunner on a B-17 “Flying Fortress,” Shilo and his crew headed to England in the spring of 1943. They were flying their first mission over France on May 29, 1943, when their plane was hit by enemy ground and air fire.

“Ground flak took us out of formation,” Shilo recalled. “Then fighter planes from all around started shooting.” Shilo bailed out, along with the aircraft’s tail gunner and navigator. The remaining seven crew members perished.

Shilo doesn’t remember pulling the rip-cord on his parachute, but he came to as he was whistling toward the ground. The parachute had been damaged and Shilo was descending “at a pretty good speed.”

He was knocked out by the hard landing, and when he came around again he was surrounded by French farmers.

“I stuck out my tongue like I was thirsty,” Shilo recalled. “They brought me a pint of wine.” Shilo was unable to walk, so the farmers carried him to a farm house and put him in a bed. That’s where the Germans found him hours later.

Shilo was taken first to a prison in Paris, then to Frankfurt, Germany, for interrogation. His legs were swollen and he could barely walk from his hard parachute landing.

Shilo eventually landed in the Stalag 17-B POW camp in Krems, Austria, where he spent the duration of the war.

Shilo’s wounds eventually healed on their own, leaving their legacy. His jaw had been lacerated when his oxygen mask was ripped off his face before he bailed out of the B-17. Still, he figures himself lucky.

“If it’d been one more inch the other way, it would’ve taken off my jaw,” he said.

When Shilo returned home after the war and was discharged from the Army Air Corps, he was awarded the Purple Heart for his wounds. But two months later, he received an official letter telling him that he did not qualify for the award because his injuries were not documented.

“They told me I wasn’t entitled to it,” Shilo said. He sent the medal back, along with a protest noting that his German captors were not in the habit of documenting the injuries of their prisoners. His protest went unheeded.

Nevertheless, Shilo was given 100 percent disability classification for his permanent leg injuries and other ailments stemming from his ordeal — including chronic back problems.

Shilo recently took up the cause again, with the help of local veterans’ services officer Linda Adams. Together they gathered up Shilo’s lengthy documentation of medical treatments over the years related to his war injuries and submitted them to government.

In January, Shilo received a letter from the Department of the Army notifying him that his Purple Heart was being reinstated.

At the ceremony on Friday, Shilo beamed at the crowd as Walden held up his coveted Purple Heart medal.

“This has got me flabbergasted,” Shilo said. “But I’m sure glad it happened. It’s a big relief to know I don’t have to worry about that anymore.” The crowd burst into laughter, then surrounded Art Shilo on all sides to see his Purple Heart up close.

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