It was on this day in 1918 that George Dilboy was killed on a battlefield near Belleau, France after fighting so courageously that he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, America’s highest medal for bravery. Dilboy was the first Greek-American soldier who fell in the line of duty.
The Greek-American’s conspicuous heroism was so outstanding that he was recognized and honored by three US presidents. Woodrow Wilson signed the authorization awarding Dilboy the Medal of Honor, Warren G. Harding brought his remains back to be buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery, and Calvin Coolidge presided at his final burial there.
Born in Alachata, in Western Anatolia, in 1896, Dilboy’s Greek name was Γεώργιος Διλβόης, which was Americanized when his family emigrated to the United States.
Andrew T. Kopan wrote about Dilboy in an article titled “Defenders of the Democracy: Greek Americans in the Military”, in the Greek-American Review, in September of 1998.
According to Kopan, “After the Balkan War of 1912-13, his family fled to America to avoid persecution from the Turks… On July 25, 1917, he was assigned to company H, 103rd Infantry, 26th Division. He was sent with his company to France and took part in the Champagne-Marne defense and the Aisne-Marne counter offensive.”
The official citation of Dilboy’s Congressional Medal for Bravery reads: “Private Dilboy, accompanying his platoon leader to reconnoiter the ground beyond, was suddenly fired upon an enemy machine gun, rushed forward with his bayonet fixed through a wheat field toward the gun emplacement.”
Dilboy fell “within twenty-five yards of the gun, with his right leg nearly severed and with several bullet holes in his body. With courage undaunted, he continued to fire into the emplacement from a prone position, killing two of the enemy and dispersing the rest of the crew,” the citation notes.
Dilboy was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest medal America can bestow upon a soldier, which was presented to his father, Antonios Dilboy.
The speech commemorating Dilboy at his Medal of Honor ceremony, on the Boston Commons, was detailed by Kopan: “Your boy was born in a foreign land and, like you, he spoke the Greek language and with you came to his adopted country. You taught him about the Flag and what American citizenship means.
At the request of his father, Dilboy was buried at his birthplace Alachata, which at the time was a predominantly Greek city. After a funeral procession through the streets of his birthplace followed by thousands of mourners, his flag-draped casket was placed in the Greek Orthodox Church of the Presentation in Alachata to lie in state before the high altar.
However, the body of the fallen soldier was not destined to remain in peace for long. The Greco-Turkish War raged on from 1919- 1922, and soon Turkish soldiers seized the town and recaptured Smyrna and the surrounding region from the Greeks.
According to Bishop John Kallos, the Church of the Presentation was ransacked and Dilboy’s grave was desecrated. The American flag was stolen from atop his coffin, which was overturned, and the bones of the Greek-American war hero were scattered by the marauding Turks.
U.S. President Warren G. Harding was outraged by the Turks’ act and, in an extraordinary act, even sent the warship USS Litchfield to Turkey in September of 1922 to recover Dilboy’s remains.
Harding also demanded and received a formal apology for the desecration from the Turkish government. Dilboy’s remains were collected and a Turkish guard of honor delivered his casket just it had previously been, draped in an American flag, to an American landing party in Smyrna.
The hero’s remains were transferred to the USS Litchfield and returned to the United States. On November 12, 1923, Dilboy was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, where his gravestone proudly proclaims his Medal of Honor status.
Many Greek-Americans, who were often the sons of Western Anatolian Christian refugees, carried Dilboy’s image as they fought overseas in World War II.
The memory of the heroic Greek-American immigrant is also commemorated with a large bronze statue at the Hines Veterans Administration Hospital in Illinois.