Mt. Vernon Register-News

May 15, 2011

Illinois WWII veteran gets Bronze Star


MT. VERNON — With family members as spectators, Robert F. Downey of Danville went through a ceremony on Easter that was 67 years overdue.

A son, Bob, and daughter, Mary, pinned the Bronze Star medal on the World War II veteran, while son Thomas read a history of the medal and its purpose.

A certificate accompanying the medal notes his heroic and meritorious service as an infantry man in the European Theater of Operations. The private first class was commended for his outstanding dedication to duty during combat operations.

“I was surprised,” Downey said. “I didn’t know a thing about it.”

His wife, Rita, said, “I’m glad he got it. He deserved it.”

Downey will add the star to his other medals, including the Purple Heart. He received that in 1944 for wounds suffered in action at the Anzio beachhead in Italy.

Downey said he and his unit knew they were entitled to the Bronze Star, but never received it. The young man was more interested in recovering from his wounds, starting a family and getting back to normal.

About a year ago, his son, Lt. Col. Thomas P. Downey of Carbondale, came across information about who’s eligible for the star. He found the information by searching the Internet, and learned that anyone with a Combat Infantry Badge or Combat Medic Badge while serving in an infantry unit in WWII is eligible.

He sent in all the paperwork, without his father’s knowledge. The younger Downey, who is with the Army Reserve, teaches ROTC at Southern Illinois University.

He and other family members gathered in Danville on Easter and presented the patriarch of the family with the medal and a ball cap noting his WWII awards.

Daughter Mary Downey of Danville said the award is well-deserved, although her father downplays it. “He was a 17-year-old kid thrust into this horrible situation,” she said, recalling stories he told about not getting supplies on a regular basis.

The battles at Anzio took 33,000 lives, Downey said.

Downey joined the Army at age 17 on July 1, 1942. He served with the 34th Division in Africa and then the 3rd Division in Sicily.

He remembers vividly that day in Anzio, when he was in a dugout, but too close to the opening. Artillery went off, and a piece hit his arm and scratched his neck as it went by.

“I was kind of numb,” he recalled. “It didn’t hurt, even (until later).” Sulfa powder was sprinkled into the wound as an antiseptic.

Downey’s family still has the original Western Union telegram (now laminated), which was sent to his parents in 1944.

It reads, in part: “We regret to inform (that) your son Private Robert F. Downey was on 15 April seriously wounded in action in Italy . You will be advised as reports of conditions are received.”

At the hospital in Naples, Downey recalled hearing the doctors discuss whether to amputate his arm or do a bone graft.

The latter procedure was chosen, and he was sent to the Mayo General Hospital in Galesburg. In an operation that was new for that time, doctors grafted a bone from his leg to his left arm.

Later, Downey met his wife on a blind date, and their 65th anniversary is coming up in September. A native of Danville, Downey worked several jobs, including at an asphalt company, the Danville Post Office, two auto parts stores and then Teepak, where he worked 22 years before retiring.

Serving in the military is a Downey tradition. Robert’s grandfather, Daniel Shepherd Downey, was in the Civil War; his father, Leonard, served in the Army in World War I; and his brother, William, was with the Air Force in WWII. Thomas has served in Iraq and Kuwait.

Besides Thomas, Mary and Bob, the Downeys have a daughter, the late Patricia Donaldson, who lived in Merced, Calif.