97-year-old WWII veteran decorated with six medals in family ceremony at San Antonio Chabad
Gerald Teldon, a veteran of the Allied air war over Italy and the Balkans during World War II, was decorated for his service at a ceremony in San Antonio on Friday.
Teldon, now 97 and living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, fought with the 85th and 87th fighter squadrons, both part of the 79th Fighter Group, over Italy and the Balkans in 1944 and 1945. He flew 62 missions on the P-47 Thunderbolt.
His six decorations included the Air Medal with oak leaf cluster, the American Campaign Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze service stars, the World War II Victory Medal, and the National Defense Service Medal, along with the Distinguished Unit Citation for actions over Italy in April 1945.
Lt. Col. Andrew Stein, commander of the 502nd Operations Squadron, presented the medals to Teldon, and four of his grandchildren and one great-grandchild pinned them to his jacket.
“I never realized the results of what was happening that I was doing. I was a fighter pilot, and as a fighter pilot, you never see the action that resulted from what you did. And now when I received these medals and they announced what the reasons for the medals were, I was absolutely amazed that I was involved in that,” Teldon said. “I call myself ‘Mr. Lucky.’ I mean, to live through 62 missions and live to be 97, you got to have a lot of luck for that.”
He began his service in April 1944 and was honorably discharged as a lieutenant in March 1946. He later served stateside in the Air Force during the Korean War. But he never received his medals.
Teldon doesn’t recall why but he did try to collect them for decades, to no avail. Recently, his family stepped in.
“I think there was a sense of urgency as my father was turning 98 in August. So it's not like, oh, you know, we'll do it next month, next year,” said Chaya Teldon, Teldon’s daughter-in-law.
She and other family members worked with a number of people and organizations to make the decoration ceremony happen, including Army North leadership, 106th Brigade Chaplain Mendy Stern at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, and Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin.
The ceremony included four generations of Teldons and 25 of his descendants.
“My grandfather, as well as my father, really teared up. I get emotional feeling the incredible, historical impact that his service made,” said one of Teldon’s grandsons, Rabbi Levi Teldon of the Chabad Center for Jewish Life and Learning in San Antonio. “I also felt very grateful to live in the United States and the freedoms that our country affords, especially as a practicing Jewish person.”
550,000 American Jews fought for the U.S. armed forces during World War II, according to the National World War II Museum.
The ceremony was a surprise for Teldon, who was in town to celebrate his great grandson’s bar mitzvah at Chabad. So it was a fitting location for the decoration to take place there just hours before Friday night services.
“It's really cool. He always tells us cool stuff when we go to museums,” said Mendel Teldon, the bar mitzvah boy. “Now we see the plane he flew, the uniform he wore.”
On a table, lay memorabilia – scrapbooks, pilot logs, old photos of Teldon’s time in the military. He first enlisted in the United States Army air forces in 1944 at 18 years old.
An official Air Force history explained the 70th Fighter Group Teldon served in began operations in March 1943. Duties included "escorting bombers, attacking enemy shipping and supporting ground forces."
It played a role in Allied operations to retake North Africa and the invasions of Sicily and mainland Italy.
By late 1944, it supported the campaigns to drive German forces out of France. It also continued to fight in northern Italy until the end of the European war in May 1945.
The group was deactivated in 1947, the same year the U.S. Army air forces were reorganized into a new military branch: the U.S. Air Force. In 1955, the group was reborn and assigned to Air Defense Command.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are less than a quarter million World War II veterans living today of the 16 million who fought in the war.
Teldon used his moment to send a civic message.
"All of us here, especially the military, are here because we all believe fervently in our country and what it stands for," he said. "And the things that are going on in our country today...I think it's very important to have everyone just read the Bill of Rights."
The magnitude of the ceremony wasn’t lost on anyone in the room.
“During the presentation, as the chaplain read out what each medal was for, you saw his mind wandering back to that incident during the war. And he had tears in his eyes. The memory of his war experiences came back to him,” said Chaya Teldon. “I think for the great grandchildren who were watching my father-in-law's concluding remarks at the end, there's pride in being an American.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified the Air Force officer who presented the medals to Teldon. It was Lt. Col. Andrew Stein, commander of the 502nd Operations Squadron.