69 years later, a sailor collects his medals
By Lydia O'Neal | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: July 2, 2014
When the Second World War ended, 20-year-old Navy technician Robert Cyliax just wanted to go home.
After a flight from Iwo Jima to Japan, another to California, then a two-week drive back home to Philadelphia, Cyliax was tired and not concerned with collecting paperwork.
Nearly seven decades later, in the crowded kitchen of a Philadelphia veterans' shelter, the 89-year-old former sailor belatedly picked up five medals for his service Tuesday, all earned but never received.
Members of Cyliax's family - some of whom had journeyed to Philadelphia from St. Louis - waited in the Veterans' Group shelter as his younger son, Curt, drove him from his Horsham home to the surprise ceremony.
Curt had told his father they were simply on their way to "pick up" the medals.
"Oh, well, when did you get here?" the veteran - startled, but smiling - asked his relatives as he entered the packed kitchen.
After some hugs, a doughnut, a cup of coffee, and the Pledge of Allegiance, Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) fastened five medals to the pocket on Cyliax's yellow polo T-shirt with black binder clips.
"It's not too far from here our founding fathers launched this great republican experiment," the senator said. "They were the first patriots, the first veterans. Veterans have, over centuries now, allowed us to continue to be a great republican experiment."
Cyliax declined to give a speech - he said he was "too surprised." Afterward, however, he recalled why he had not spoken of his time in the South Pacific, let alone worried about military honors, until now.
"Nobody cared - it was [just] a matter of whether or not you were a D-Day veteran," said Cyliax, who entered boot camp at age 17 before rising to the rank of first class aviation radio technician.
Little more than a year ago, after the death of his wife of 64 years, Donnie "Lorraine" Cyliax, the veteran began recounting his experiences overseas with his family. His granddaughter Kelly Cyliax, 15, interviewed him for a school project last year.
"I think that, as he's gotten older, he's realized how much his service meant," said Curt Cyliax's wife, Susan. "In the last couple of years, he really started talking."
Though he did not see much battle, Cyliax worked on what was at the time considered cutting-edge aviation and navigation equipment.
"Our low-altitude bombing technology was just below top secret," he said.
In New Guinea, Cyliax worked on troop carrier planes. While in the Philippines, he worked on patrol planes used to search for Japanese soldiers during their occupation of the islands. Filipino women, he recalled, would launder the soldiers' cloths "for a quarter and a bar of soap."
Toward the end of the war, Cyliax worked on B-24 planes on the island of Iwo Jima, which he called "the strangest place in the world."
"Everything was hot - the shower water that came from the ground was hot," he said. "We used to go swimming and dig our feet into the ash, and it would be hot. We'd have to lie out in the sun to cool off."
When Curt Cyliax finally began hearing his father's long-buried stories last year, he started digging through old documents. Finding the forms for the medals his father was due, Curt took them to Veterans' Group.
A representative from the shelter approached the senator's office. Toomey said his office gives these belated awards to veterans about 20 to 25 times each year, but rarely in a ceremony.
In addition to the Navy Good Conduct Medal, the World War Two Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, and the Philippine Liberation Medal, Cyliax received the Combat Action Ribbon, the Discharge Button, and the Honorable Service Lapel Pin.
"They call that one a 'Ruptured Duck' pin," Cyliax said, holding his golden lapel pin, which showed an eagle perched on a dime-size ring - an official symbol of his honorable discharge. "That's how you can tell when someone's a veteran."