WWII vet receives war medals 6 decades later
By Karen Berkowitz firstname.lastname@example.org September 4, 2013 7:34PM
U.S. Senator Richard Durbin presents Dr. Irving Distelheim of Highland Park, a WWII veteran, with medals earned during the war's European theater. Distelheim served in France during the final two years of the war, first caring for troops in a hospital, then taking command of a mobile medical detachment which followed the German retreat across the country leading up to the end of the war, August 29, 2013. | Joe Cyganowski-For Sun-Times Media
Irving Distelheim’s four medals
• European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Bronze Service Star
• American Campaign Medal
• World War II Victory Medal
• Army of Occupation Medal with German Clasp and Honorable Service Lapel Button, which recognizes service in Germany during World War II
Updated: October 7, 2013 12:36PM
When Irving Distelheim returned home from World War II, he was eager to start his medical residency and resume the training that was interrupted when the U.S. Army called him into duty two years before the war’s end.
For nearly six decades, Distelheim never thought about the medals and ribbons he was owed for his service, but had never received.
But after he retired at 92 years old, the Highland Park veteran sat down to write his memoirs for his children, grandchildren and future kin. Only then did it hit him: He never received those tangible acknowledgements of his contributions to the war effort.
On Aug. 29, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin presented Distelheim, 95, with four medals commemorating his service to his country in France. The presentation took place before dozens of fellow war veterans, friends, family members and public officials in Memorial Park, just east of downtown Highland Park.
“It is the least I could do for a man who has dedicated his life to the service of others, both as a doctor caring for the wounded in France during the war and during his civilian career as a physician in private practice,” said Durbin, the second highest ranking member of the U.S. Senate.
“Dr. Distelheim is a prime example of why men and women of his time are called the ‘Greatest Generation,’” Durbin added.
Distelheim and his family members were astounded by the attention spawned by the unassuming request he’d made to Durbin’s office last year. The retired physician had contacted the senator’s office for help in locating the medals and expected they would be sent by mail. Staff members from Durbin’s Chicago office worked with Distelheim and the U.S. Army to assemble the paperwork required to issue the medals.
Distelheim’s wife Rochelle attributes the military’s oversight to the monumental task of bringing the war to its conclusion.
“When the war ended in Europe, there were thousands and thousands of men in Europe who were then going to be sent to Japan,” Rochelle Distelheim said. “When the atomic bomb was dropped, the war was over within days. The army had this huge bureaucratic problem on its hands of bringing thousands of soldiers and all that equipment home.”
Irving Distelheim stayed behind in France for more than a year, because he was not married and had no children and therefore was low on the priority rankings.
Distelheim worked his way through the University of Illinois Medical School and in 1943 graduated after a shortened internship due to the war effort. A day later, he received a letter saying “Welcome to the Army,” said his wife. He was deployed to a military hospital in Rouen, France, where he cared for troops headed to the front and those wounded in combat. He was soon promoted to captain and commanding officer of the 252nd Medical Detachment, a group of 12 enlisted men and 12 non-commissioned officers who followed the German retreat east across France.
“Many of the German troops were surrendering or were captured during this retreat and needed medical attention, but there was just no place to take them,” said Durbin. “So our Dr. Distelheim was entrusted with organizing the care for 80,000 German prisoners. These 80,000 men may have been the enemies to some, but Dr. Distelheim was a doctor first.”
Distelheim had a long career as a dermatologist based in Lincolnwood. An art lover, he also owned the Distelheim Art Galleries in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. He and his wife have lived for the past 55 years in Highland Park, where they raised their three daughters, Laura, Ellen and Lisa.