Gen. John Pershing called him one of the 10 greatest heroes of World War I. The City of Somerville, Mass., remembers him with a bust, an athletic field and a stadium. Three presidents honored him. So who was George Dilboy?
He was a 22-year-old Greek-American who died heroically at Belleau Wood in France. He had already fought in four wars on three continents when he fell while wiping out a German machine gun nest.
His commanding officer called the feat one of the most impressive sights he had seen. And the desecration of his grave created an international incident.
George Dilboy was born Feb. 5, 1896 in Alatsata near Smyrna in what is now Turkey. He had six brothers and two sisters. As his father later said, they felt Turkish persecution. The family began immigrating to the United States.
George and one of his brothers arrived in Somerville, Mass., in 1908, to join their father. George went to school, and got a job in the laundry at Massachusetts General Hospital. He also worked as a busboy at the Georgian Café. At the age of 16 he returned to his native land and fought for Greece in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.
Then he came back to the United States, where he went to work at the Copley Square Hotel. However the summer heat forced the hotel to close. So he found a job working in a shoe factory in Keene, N.H. There he enlisted in the New Hampshire National Guard in June 1916. As a guardsman he served in the Mexican border campaign. Then in 1917, he joined the Army’s 103rd Infantry Regiment, 26th Division.—known as the Yankee Division.
George Dilboy undoubtedly had more battlefield experience than most of the men who enlisted as National Guardsmen in the Yankee Division.
The Western Front
Sent to France in the fall of 1917, the Yankee Division fought German attacks in the spring. On July 18, 1918, his company had orders to control the Bouresches railway station as part of the Allied counteroffensive at Belleau Wood.
According to the New York Times, Nov. 5, 1923, German machine guns were punishing Dilboy’s platoon. His lieutenant started to go to the front to see how this nest could be flanked. A young lad with an automatic rifle jumped up and said: “Lieutenant, I can wipe out these men.”
The lieutenant answered, “Go ahead.”
Dilboy threw himself flat and wriggled through a wheat field, killing several machine gunners with automatic fire. A German sniper shot him twice, but he kept going. When he reached the machine gun nest he found two remaining Germans. He then stood up and received a burst from the machine guns, which cut off his right leg. Dilboy fell on his back and pushed himself forward with his left foot. He turned his head, aimed and killed the two men.
“Lying on his back, with his right hand uppermost, the lad motioned to his platoon to go forward, and died with a smile on his face,” the Times reported.
They buried his body on the battlefield, now the Aisne-Marne Cemetery, along with 2,000 marines and soldiers who gave their lives in the victory at Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood.
Medal of Honor
Col. S.M. Shumway, his commanding officer, said,
It was one of the most impressive sights I experienced in the War. George Dilboy died facing the enemy, carrying on as long as there was the faintest whiff of breath in his body. He routed the enemy alone. He was as fine a soldier as ever served under the Stars and Stripes.
President Woodrow Wilson signed the authorization to award George Dilboy the Medal of Honor. In January 1919 the medal was presented to his father, Antonios Dilboy. “We came to this country from Smyrna, where my boy and other children were born,” he said. “We know and have felt the persecutions of Turkey.”
At his father’s request, George’s body was moved to his home town of Alatsata. Seventeen thousand people were said to have lined the streets watching his coffin carried into the church.
But in 1922, Turkish troops occupied Alatsata. They broke open his coffin, scattered his bones and stole the flag.
The grave desecration infuriated President Warren G. Harding, who sent the USS Litchfield to bring back Dilboy’s remains. Harding also demanded an apology from Turkey. A Turkish guard of honor brought the boy’s remains to the battleship, with a new U.S. flag.
On Nov. 12, 1923, he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. President Calvin Coolidge presided at the ceremony.
Somerville named an athletic field and stadium after him. The stadium fell into disrepair, so the city rebuilt it in 2008. A bust honoring him stands in front of Somerville City Hall. VFW posts in Keene and Somerville were named after him.
He is believed to be the first Greek-American to win the Medal of Honor.
With thanks to Carved in Stone: The Story of George Dilboy by Richard Rozakis.
Aisne-Marne Cemetery By US gov – https://web.archive.org/web/20050405022608/http://www.abmc.gov/images/am1w.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6986605. George Dilboy headstone: By Arlington National Cemetery – http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/ANCExplorer, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44946194. This story last updated in 2022.