Llewellyn Morris “Al” Chilson was born on April Fools’ Day, 1 April 1920, in Dayton, Ohio to a World War I veteran. The Chilson family later moved to South Akron, Ohio.
How hard was Chilson’s childhood? When he was ten, his mother was hit and killed by a vehicle in front of their house. He later said that he mastered his combat skills on the rough streets where he grew up. At 16, he dropped out of school to become a truck driver.
Little did anyone know that that teenage driver would eventually become one of the most decorated U.S. Army soldiers of World War II. He earned twelve individual combat awards, seven of which were decorations for valor. Unbelievably to many including President Harry S. Truman, this rough and tumble real-life “Rambo” was twice denied the Medal of Honor.
On March 17, 1942, Chilson got his draft letter. He was in Camp Livingston, Louisiana when he was nearly put out of commission before he even made it to the front. A heavy wheel fell on his leg, knocked him over, and gave him a severe concussion.
However, he was not discharged, something many Germans would later regret. By July 1943, Chilson was at the invasion of Sicily with the 179th Infantry Regiment, 45th Division, known as the “Thunderbirds.”
On February 15, 1944, Chilson was near Carroceto, Italy when he was wounded in the face by a shell fragment. It did not stop him from firing until he ran out of ammo, after which he was captured.
Five days later, the Allies counter-attacked the German position, allowing Chilson to escape—along with four German captives he took back to the Allied side. With their information, the Allies were able to press their attack and capture forty more Germans.
For Chilson’s wounds at Carrocetto, he was awarded a Purple Heart. For what he did on February 20, he received a Silver Star. However, on July 9 he was court-martialed for two counts of AWOL and his Silver Star was revoked as part of his punishment.
Despite the court-martial, Chilson became a technical sergeant with Company G, 2nd Battalion in Operation Anvil (also called Dragoon) and took part of the Normandy Landings.
On October 28, he was pinned down by Germans on a hill in Lorraine, France. Twenty-five of his friends had been captured after previous attempts to dislodge the enemy. Chilson sneaked around their flank, took out the Germans, and freed his men.
On November 24, the 2nd Battalion went to Denshein near the Vosges Mountains where they encountered a fortified roadblock. When night fell, Chilson crawled to the German outpost and threw two grenades at the sentries.
Seconds later, he gave them a taste of his submachine gun, killing three. That convinced the other nine to surrender, and the Army to reinstate his Silver Star.
Just before dawn on November 29, Chilson’s group was attacked outside the city of Mühlhausen, forcing them to retreat to Engwiller in France. The following day found them back in Germany some two miles southwest of Gumbrechtshoffen.
Chilson’s group ended up on a seemingly indefensible hillside where they were unable to dig foxholes for cover. Chilson successfully held the hill anyway, lying down until approaching Germans were mere yards away and then standing up suddenly to mow them down with his Thompson 45-cal sub-machine gun. That was how reinforcements found him: firing at about 100 Germans crouched several yards away.
Chilson’s superiors recommended him for the Medal of Honor for the first time after this action, but the Awards Board refused to grant it.
In February 1945, Chilson heard about his brother’s death in the Philippines. He went AWOL again, but made up for it on March 26. The Thunderbirds had crossed the Rhine near the town of Gernsheim at 2:30 AM when two platoon commanders were hit. Chilson took command, and got his men across when they came under more flak.
He single-handedly took out an ammunition car and two heavy machine guns, which his battalion then used to take out three enemy flak cars. The Thunderbirds killed 11 Germans and took another 225 captive, earning Chilson a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC).
Just before dawn, they were attacked outside Gernsheim. Unable to pinpoint the enemy, Chilson set fire to a horse-drawn ammunition wagon and sent it rolling toward where he thought the shots were coming from. The burning wagon illuminated the area and proved Chilson right. As the enemy ran, he gunned them down.
Later that day, he attacked more German positions with grenades, killing five and forcing another 41 to surrender.
The Thunderbirds were again attacked outside Horsenthal on March 31. Chilson and two others ran through enemy fire and hopped into a tank. With one man firing and another driving, Chilson stood exposed so he could direct the shots. His conspicuousness made him a perfect target, but he wasn’t hit.
Chilson was recommended for the Medal of Honor for the second time after this series of actions. Again, it was denied.
On April 25 at Meilenholen, Chilson ran ahead of his men, hopped onto a jeep, and drove down the main road. He steered with one hand while firing away with his machine gun in the other. The resulting forty dead Germans, two ruined flak guns, and two damaged 88 mm howitzers earned him his second DSC.
Later that day, the Thunderbirds found another American battalion trying to storm the village of Zell. Chilson found a motorcycle, drove it toward a machine gun nest, and had the bike shot out from under him—but not before he got close enough to take out three German gunners with a grenade.
April 27 found Chilson in Neuberg. The Americans came under fire from the second story window of an apartment building, so Chilson ran toward it through a hail of bullets. He ran upstairs, where his grenade took out two gunners and convinced another eight to surrender.
More flak then began coming from another apartment across the courtyard outside. Chilson chucked a white phosphorous grenade out the window, rushed back down, dashed across the smoke-filled courtyard, and fired at the upstairs window.
Although the Germans could not see Chilson, they managed to shoot him in the arm. He did not even slow down. He killed another two Germans, ran out of ammunition, and chased down and beat a third German unconscious. Chilson then passed out as well and was rescued by his men. With those actions, he earned his third DSC.
At that point, Chilson was out of the war for good. His wounds earned him a second Purple Heart, a hospital stay in England, and a wife from among the nurses at the hospital. He was sent home in June 1945.
On December 6, 1946, President Harry S. Truman pinned seven medals, including the Legion of Merit, on Chilson. Truman then turned to the press and said, “This is the most remarkable list of citations I have ever seen. For any one of these, 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.”
The Awards Board disagreed. Regardless, Chilson eventually retired from the Army in 1964 as a master sergeant—and although he may not have earned the Medal of Honor, his legendary status is assured.