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Kamikaze Attack Survivor 'Long Overdue' for Purple Heart Medal

Chilton Raiford still carries the emotional baggage from wounds he suffered during World War II, when a Japanese pilot purposely crashed his plane into an American aircraft carrier.

The Rappahannock County man, who goes by "Chilly," lost hearing in his left ear during the kamikaze attack, the 1940s version of a suicide bomb. He also suffered a brain injury and spent time in a "shell-shock ward" in the days before doctors--and the general public--recognized damage caused by post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I remember it like it was yesterday, the shrapnel was flying all around, and the fire was raging," Raiford said. "And the smell. Oh, my God. The stink never gets out of your nostrils."

The Navy veteran turned 94 on Sunday, and if there's anything he'd really like, it's a Purple Heart medal to recognize the suffering inflicted on March 11, 1945. He would pin it next to the campaign medals he proudly wears on a black jacket, and he's got a hat that declares him a "Kamikaze Attack Survivor."

"It would be a reward that I have looked forward to having for years," he said, "to join the group of wounded veterans."

Another Navy veteran from a younger generation is hoping to make it happen for Raiford. David Sillaman, 60 and a retired Navy chief petty officer who lives in southern Fauquier County, is lobbying politicians and veterans groups to make some retroactive changes in how Purple Heart medals are awarded.

Sillaman would like to see Raiford and others from his era, along with those who served in Korea and Vietnam, Desert Storm and Desert Shield, recognized for hidden injuries that didn't come with blood or bullet holes.

"Individuals like him, and many others, should have been awarded Purple Heart medals and are long overdue," Sillaman said.

PURPLE HEART HISTORY

The award known as the Purple Heart goes back to Gen. George Washington and the waning days of the Revolutionary War. Washington wanted to recognize bravery, particularly among enlisted soldiers, so he created the Badge of Military Merit. The award was supposed to be a permanent one, but "it was all but forgotten until the 20th century," according to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor.

In 1932, the medal was revived on the 200th anniversary of Washington's birth. The criteria has changed over the years; at first, it was given to Army and Air Corps personnel only. By 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the medal for members of all branches of services who had been wounded, killed or died from their wounds, going back to Dec. 7, 1941.

But as Sillaman discovered, Purple Hearts of the past were given on the basis of blood spilled and membranes ruptured. Technology didn't exist to look inside the body for injuries, and Purple Hearts weren't awarded for seemingly invisible damage.

That changed in 2011, when the Department of Defense allowed a more standard way to evaluate a "non-penetrating wound."

The change was made retroactive to 2001, but it didn't go back to the most prominent war of the 20th century. Sillaman believes it should and recognizes that Raiford may not have many more years to wait for it.

"Mr. Raiford is currently receiving chemotherapy for skin cancer," Sillaman said, "and considering his age, I would love for him to receive this award while he still alive."

ACTS OF SACRIFICE

As Sillaman researched Raiford's records, he found a citation written by Fleet Adm. William "Bull" Halsey after the attack on the Randolph. It had been lost over time.

The citation noted that Raiford had been knocked unconscious in the kamikaze attack. After he woke up, he went to the damaged area, in the midst of detonating bombs and burning fuel "at great risk to his own life" to help other sailors. The letter also said Raiford was treated for his own wounds afterward.

With help from Fredericksburg-area Congressman Rob Wittman, Del. Richard Anderson and American Legion Post 247 in Remington, Sillaman presented Raiford a framed copy of the citation last month, during an event for veterans. Sillaman owns a tax service in Manassas, and his business sponsored the event.

Sillaman also has reached out to Virginia Sen. Mark Warner and plans to write President-elect Donald Trump after his inauguration. Sillaman has arranged for Raiford to be the guest speaker at a Jan. 22 lunch sponsored by the Prince William Chamber of Commerce's Veterans Council and to be among those recognized Dec. 8 by the Eagles Lodge in Stafford County.

Sillaman knows he faces an uphill battle in getting Congress to change the law to make Raiford and others eligible for retroactive Purple Hearts.

Wittman, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, said he definitely supports retroactive presentations of Purple Heart medals in cases such as Raiford's. He says there are certain acts of sacrifice, such as what happens during combat, that should not go unrecognized.

"The Purple Heart offers that honor and that recognition," Wittman said, adding it's incumbent on current generations "to fulfill the obligations we owe folks like Chilton Raiford."

'I DID MY SERVICE'

Raiford was 22 and extremely fit when he served on the Randolph. He was a sprinter in high school, colleges were recruiting him, and he had an eye toward training for the Olympics.

After his service in the war, which included a second kamikaze attack and 12 fires aboard the carrier, he ended up in the shell-shock ward of a military hospital. He sat in a padded room with a blanket around his shoulders, crying and shaking.

"It was a horror," he said.

He happened to catch his reflection in the mirror and was aghast. His eyes were sunken in his head, and his hair had fallen out. (He vowed, if his hair grew back, he'd always wear it long, and the man with American Indian blood kept his promise.)

Even more shocking was the change to his physique.

"I don't mean to sound dramatic, but I had a body envied by men and admired by women," Raiford said.

As he spoke, his son, Mark, walked through the room of his father's Amissvile home and said: "It runs in the family."

Doctors wanted to put a steel plate in the elder Raiford's head, but he declined. His migraine headaches went on for another 18 years and stopped, he believes, when he was "touched by the Master."

Raiford eventually worked as a policeman in Alexandria, then as a florist and shoe salesman. He built the house he lives in, after the 18th-century home he purchased and renovated burned. He was married three times and has six children.

He's grateful for what Sillaman and his wife, Terri, are doing to help him get a Purple Heart. He called David Sillaman his hero and tried to focus attention on the younger man's Navy record, including service during Desert Storm and aboard an aircraft carrier, but Sillaman stopped him, saying the interview was about Raiford.

"I'm like you and many other Americans," Sillaman said. "I went where they sent me, and I did my service."

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com ___

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This article was written by Cathy Dyson from The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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