A local military veteran has finally been issued the Purple Heart he earned while serving in World War II -- more than 70 years ago.
Over the post-Independence Day weekend, staff at the Western Kentucky Veterans Center told former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Dudley Riley that he had been selected to give a talk to grade-schoolers in Greenville on Wednesday. The now 95-year-old Dawson Springs native had spent five years in active duty during the Second World War, two of which were spent in a German prisoner of war camp with hundreds of other Americans.
Meanwhile, other residents living at the center were told a special veterans' program would take place on the same day, and they all should attend.
When Wednesday came, Riley stepped out of his room and into the hall, where he was surprised with applause from dozens of well wishers and dignitaries such as Hanson Mayor Mickey Demoss, Judge-Executive Donnie Carroll and Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Brigadier General Benjamin F. Adams III. There would be no trip to Muhlenberg County that day after all. Instead, Riley was going to be presented with the Purple Heart medal that had eluded him since 1945.
On Feb. 17, 1943, Riley was captured, along with his unit, by German forces in North Africa and transferred to a prison camp near Berlin, where he was held for more than two years in cramped quarters with hundreds of other prisoners.
"Our beds were stacked three-high in the middle," he said. "There were 16 cracks in my bed. I counted them -- many, many times."
Riley was released on April 26, 1945 as Russian troops advanced upon the facility. During his time there, Riley and his fellow soldiers walked as many as 100 miles in a week over frozen terrain. By the time he was freed, Riley's feet had succumbed to frostbite.
Just one year ago, Riley approached Johnny Allen, the local veteran benefits representative and said he thought he had earned a Purple Heart for that injury, but as the decades came and went, he had never received it.
The oversight, according to Adams, is very common with veterans of older wars.
"When the war ended, there were so many things that occurred," he said. "There were eight million soldiers discharged, and a lot of the ones that were forgotten just got lost in the administrative world. There was no internet, and it was all done on paper. Of course, there was also a records fire in St. Louis."
The fire, which occurred at the National Personnel Records Center in 1973, destroyed the records of approximately 80 percent of army personnel discharged between 1912 and 1960.
"We lost a lot of records from World War II," Adams said. "A lot of things that may have been in his records could have been lost. In this situation, somehow it was either overlooked or lost, but the information was provided back to St. Louis, who verified he was injured and of course, made amends.
"This is something that occurs all of the time," he added. "Unfortunately, we aren't able to catch everybody, but there are efforts to try and resolve these types of issues. In Riley's case, it was certainly long overdue, but now he is able to enjoy the benefits of the recognition he certainly well deserves."
The verification process took about one full year before Allen finally received the medal. As soon as he was successful in his request, he wanted to present it to Riley in style.
"When it came in, I was really excited and was going to take it to him right away," Allen said. "Then I thought, 'Wait a second - maybe we can present it to him?'"
Thus, the ruse was born, and the Greenville scheme was concocted out of thin air.
Riley said he couldn't have been more shocked when he walked into the activity room to find at least 50 people waiting there for his arrival.
"In the 95 years it has taken me to get here, this is one of the most memorable things," he said. "This Purple Heart means more to me than anything else. I really appreciate it."
In the years following the war, Riley authored his memoir, "Boy, Soldier, Daddy" and served as Commander of the Western Kentucky Chapter of the American Ex-Prisoners of War, East Central Region. He also served on the Governor's Advisory Committee for the Western Kentucky Veterans Center, was named Dawson Springs' "Citizen of the Year" in 2001 and attended the National World War II Reunion in Washington D.C. in 2004. That same year, a bridge over the Tradewater River was named the "Dudley Riley Bridge."
Riley is the third resident of the veterans center to receive a Purple Heart. Previous recipients include Lindel Maddox and Donald Beverly, both World War II Army veterans.