Marine Loren Duke Abdalla lives every day with the injuries he suffered during two campaigns he fought in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
For the past decade, family, friends and complete strangers have fought a campaign on the 89-year-old veteran’s behalf – to get him the Medal of Honor they allege was denied him because of his Sioux heritage.
The South Dakota native and longtime Fox Lake resident – “Duke” to his friends – fought with the 1st Marine Division at the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa, and it’s his actions on the latter that supporters say are long overdue for recognition, given increased interest in correcting cases in which racism may have played a role.
“Everybody who hears his story of what he did on May 5, 1945, has gone wild,” said eldest grandson Doug Nykolaycuyk, who speaks for his grandfather.
Corporal Abdalla was ordered to take his 12-member squad and destroy six Japanese machine gun nests as part of a platoon effort to secure a ridge on Okinawa. At the start of the attack, he rescued a fellow squad leader who had been hit by a phosphorus grenade and carried him under heavy fire to safety.
By the time his squad had reached and destroyed the fourth nest, Abdalla realized that all of his men were either dead or wounded. So he destroyed the remaining two nests by himself, allowing the rest of the platoon to reach and destroy a larger gun in a cave and clear a path for a larger advance.
The platoon sergeant who threw the satchel charge that destroyed the big gun received the Navy Cross, the Marines’ second highest medal for valor, and two others in his squad received Silver Stars. But neither Abdalla – who his fellow Marines called “The Indian” – nor his squad mates were recognized.
Abdalla’s highest decoration is the Purple Heart he received after being hit by shrapnel in both legs and having his eardrums blown out from an explosion at Peleliu. He recovered at a field hospital on Guadalcanal and returned to the 1st Marines to fight on Okinawa.
Nykolaycuyk said his grandfather is a “proud man who never complained,” but one day bluntly answered his grandson’s question as to why he was never decorated.
“I asked, what was the reason? He said, ‘Discrimination. That’s what happened and that’s exactly why I was passed over,’” Nykolaycuyk said.
Interestingly, the push for granting Abdalla the Medal of Honor began in 2004, when Abdalla met with an attorney over boundary lines on his property. They got to talking when Abdalla saw that the attorney was a retired Marine captain, and the attorney realized that Abdalla did not get his due.
The attorney was a member of the Illinois Marine Corps League, and the commandant at the time, Mike Ruffner, spent years hunting down witnesses to corroborate Abdalla’s story in order to make the case.
A growing number of state and local governments have passed resolutions asking President Obama and Congress to review Abdalla’s case. The most recent, House Resolution 1086, was passed by the Illinois House in late May at the request of Rep. Barbara Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake, whose district includes Fox Lake.
Wheeler said it did not take any arm twisting at all to get the House Veterans Affairs Committee to jump on board. She thinks a renewed interest in correcting such slights to military heroes, and a renewed sense of patriotism in the decade since the Sept. 11 attacks, give Abdalla’s case a boost.
“We’ve come a long way,” Wheeler said. “It’s not acceptable to pass someone over based on the color of their skin, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the attitude six decades ago.”
President Obama earlier this year awarded 24 Army soldiers the Medal of Honor after a Pentagon review concluded they were denied on racial or religious grounds. All but three of the awards were posthumous.
Congress bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal in 2000 on the 29 original Navajo code talkers, recruited by the Marines during World War II to use their complicated language as an unbreakable military code. The medal was awarded in 2008 to all Navajo code talkers. The last of the original 29 died last month at age 93.
Congress bestowed the medal that same year to the Tuskegee Airmen, the legendary African-American fighter squadron that fought in Europe during the war, and last month granted it to The Borinqueneers, a Puerto Rican unit that fought in both world wars and Korea. The gold medal, the highest civilian honor that Congress can bestow, is not a military decoration.
More than 3,400 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have received the Medal of Honor since its 1861 creation. Two come from McHenry County – Elmer Bigelow of Hebron died saving his ship from exploding during World War II, and Hugh Patrick Mullin, of Richmond, who saved a shipmate from drowning in 1899.
Mullin was one of a handful of men who received the medal for peacetime heroism – the military changed the requirements before World War II to only authorize the medal for direct combat with an enemy.