Tester presents seven medals, including Bronze Star, to World War II hero

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

A 90-year-old World War II veteran who endured 27 months in German concentration camps where he was beaten with rifles, forced to work on the railroad in wooden shoes and watched the dead, frozen bodies of his comrades tossed on a heap like rag dolls has gotten his due.

After nearly seven decades, U.S. Army Pvt. Theodore "Ted" Dolney of Billings was honored Thursday with seven medals, including the prestigious Bronze Star Medal, which is awarded to any person who, while serving in U.S. Army after Dec. 6, 1941, distinguished himself or herself by heroic service.

In addition to the Bronze Star, Dolney also received his European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with four Bronze Service Stars, the American Defense Service Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge First Award, a Good Conduct Medal and the World War II Honorable Service Lapel Button.

Dolney never received the medals because his records, along with 16 million to 18 million other official military personnel files, were destroyed in a fire on July 12, 1973, at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

Working with Dolney's family, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., reconstructed his service history and secured Dolney's medals from the military. The medals were presented to Dolney during a ceremony in Tester's Billings office.

"These seven medals may be small tokens, but they are powerful symbols of true heroism, sacrifice and dedication to service," Tester said. "This is an important event for an important American."

During the ceremony, Tester heralded Dolney's heroism during World War II. The Senator will enter the remarks into the Congressional Record where they will be "recorded in America's history forever."

Dolney, who was a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany between 1943 and 1945, is now blind, relies on a wheelchair and suffered a debilitating stroke in October 2010, paralyzing his right side. His wife of 50 years, Darlene, blames the blindness on the malnutrition he suffered in the prison camps and faults his lengthy ordeal for the stroke.

He had some "good years" after his release but it wasn't long before the residual effects of his imprisonment begin to manifest. His speech is slow, measured and impaired. His wife and a nurse serve as translators.

He is humble and shies from all the attention he's getting, but he said, "It makes a difference to me."

Darlene is a feisty, mighty force and Dolney's chief advocate. She got the ball rolling to ensure that her husband got the recognition he deserved.

"When it comes to Ted, I will fight tooth and nail," she said. "It means a lot because I know what he went through. The fact he had no food, no heat and sometimes no clothes … and he's never told me all of it."

American prisoners smuggled a radio into their camps and heard reports about the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. After Germany's surrender in 1945, the Nazi guards fled Dolney's prison camp. He and other prisoner left on foot to find help. After walking several days, they finally encountered American soldiers and were sent home as heroes.

Dolney's medals will be framed and kept in a "place of honor" in the family's Billings Heights home. A Quilt of Valor from his home state of South Dakota is also being stitched for him.

As of Thursday, Tester has secured 42 medals for Montana veterans in the past year and has several other cases in the works. On Friday in Bozeman, Tester will present six more medals, including the Purple Heart, to a Big Timber Vietnam veteran.

"It's important to me and whole lot of other people that we make sure this nation's veterans get the recognition they earned," Tester said. "Presenting medals is about honoring and remembering this nation's heroes, and it's a small thing we can do to live up to the promises made to every veteran. I don't see these as just medals. They're symbols of sacrifice and service that made our country as great as it is today."