The Jack Webb Collection of Medals and Militaria

Date of Auction: 20th August 2020

Sold for £15,000

Estimate: £8,000 - £12,000

The unique and outstanding ‘Battle of Imphal’ G.M. group of five awarded to civilian Volunteer N. M. Gilliam, American Field Ambulance, attached to 3/3rd Gurkha Rifles, whose commanding officer recommended him for the Victoria Cross, endorsed by General Slim whose recommendation was for the George Cross, and by other General officers for ‘the highest award for a civilian who is not a British subject’; the only known instance of the award of a George Medal resulting from an original V.C. recommendation

George Medal, G.VI.R., 1st issue (Volunteer Neil McDowdell Gilliam) mounted on original investiture pin; 1939-45 Star; Africa Star, 1 clasp, 8th Army; Burma Star; War Medal 1939-45, with M.I.D. oak leaf, these four mounted for wearing, together with American Field Service brass cap badge, and 23rd Indian Division cloth badge, nearly extremely fine (5) £8,000-£12,000


Provenance: Acquired by Jack Webb in July 1967 from one Tom James, ex. recipient.

G.M. (Honorary award) approved 29 September 1944, on Foreign Office recommendation; notified to Central Office of the Courts of Chancery by Foreign Office letter dated 29 September 1944.

Date and Place of incident: May-June 1944; Imphal, Assam, India:- Volunteer Neil McDowdell Gilliam (Brunswick, Georgia, U.S.A.), No. 2 American Ambulance Unit, att. 14 Army.

The original recommendation for the Victoria Cross was submitted by Lieutenant-Colonel H. S. D’Arcy-McArthy, Comd. 3/3rd Q.A.O. Gurkha Rifles, on 14 June 1944, and carries the following subsequent endorsements:

‘Victoria Cross or the highest award possible. Volunteer Gilliam’s conduct has been an inspiration to the whole formn.’ Lieut.-Col. J. F. Marindin, O.C. 37th Ind. Inf. Bde.

‘These are citations for a remarkably gallant series of actions which would previously have earned the doer of them the Victoria Cross. I urge most strongly the highest award for a civilian who is not a British subject.’ Major-General Ouvry L. Roberts, Comd. 23rd Indn. Divn.

‘Recommended for highest award possible.’ Lieut.-Gen. Geoffrey Scoones, G.O.C. IV Corps.

‘Recommended for the George Cross.’ Lieut.-Gen. W. J. Slim, G.O.C-in-Chief, Fourteenth Army.

The original recommendation (WO 373/187/145 refers):

‘On the evening of 9th Jun 1944 the SCRAGGY and PYRAMID features in the SRENAM area on the PAIEL-TAMU road were subjected to heavy and continuous enemy artillery fire which caused many casualties, particularly in the forward platoon position, which was almost completely destroyed. Volunteer Gilliam was one of the members of an American Ambulance Unit attached to the Bde. whose task was to evacuate casualties in jeep ambulances from the forward area. Undeterred by the heavy shelling and by projector bombs of the PIAT type which were falling on the road, Volunteer Gilliam made numerous trips into the danger area, always driving slowly and carefully in order to cause the minimum of discomfort to the wounded men in his jeep. Between trips, although it was well outside his duty, he left his jeep ambulance on the road and went up into the company position where the fire was heaviest and assisted in carrying casualties to the R.A.P. and in bandaging them. On several occasions he went up into the forward platoon position (which was being battered by enemy artillery and mortar fire which he himself described later as ‘all hell let loose’) in order to search for casualties and bring them back. Crawling along the shattered trenches and paying not the slightest attention to the flying splinters, he would pat the Gurkhas on the back with a cheerful “Thik hai [everything’s alright], Johnny, I am here!” and would continue his search for the wounded.

Just after he had left the forward platoon carrying a badly wounded man the enemy attacked the position in force, throwing showers of grenades, many of which fell close to Volunteer Gilliam, who, however, continued slowly and carefully to pick his way down to the R.A.P. He then went back into the middle of the battle and there were several reports of his being seen up in the front line helping men to adjust their field dressings and assisting the wounded along bad bits of trench. Later on when the attack was over he went out into No Man’s Land to within ten yards of the Jap position and brought back seven more casualties.

On 10th Jun 1944, previous to an attack by us on the enemy positions, heavy Jap shelling and mortar fire again caused heavy casualties. Once more Volunteer Gilliam left his jeep between trips back to the A.D.S. in order to go into the fire swept area and assist with the evacuation of casualties. His ready smile, pat on the back and “Thik hai, Johnny” had a very cheering and settling effect on the men who were under heavy fire. During the attack and after the situation had stabilised he was continually making trips into the most forward position under heavy grenade fire in order to bring back wounded men.

Throughout the extremely trying and difficult twenty-four hours starting from the evening of 9th June, Volunteer Gilliam’s cheerfulness and devotion to duty were beyond all praise. His one thought was to render the maximum possible aid to the wounded and to do this he was willing to face any risk. Although his task was only to evacuate the casualties brought down to the jeep, he evidently considered that this was not giving enough assistance and made countless trips under the heaviest fire into and, at times, beyond the most forward positions in order to help the wounded. A number of badly wounded men undoubtedly owe their lives to his action in going right forward and getting them back rapidly for medical attention. His encouragement, cheerfulness and complete disregard for the heaviest fire while carrying out his self-imposed task had a most heartening effect on the men and earned their deepest respect and admiration.’

The recommendation held by the Foreign Office, in addition to the above, continues:

‘Previously, on the night 20/21 May, 1944, two companies were holding exposed positions which were being shelled very heavily. Volunteer Gilliam was told that fairly heavy casualties had been sustained by the forward company. He immediately moved off along what was little more than a goat track and on each side of which many shells were falling. He arrived in the forward company area and was a few yards away from Company H.Q. when the Company Commander was killed by a shell. In spite of the heavy shells which were falling all round him he attended to wounded who were out in the open and then attended to those who had been wounded in the bunkers and trenches. Nowhere on this position was any crawl trench deeper than 18”. He then returned to the rear Company H.Q. where heavy shelling was still going on; by this time the rear company had sustained casualties and the enemy was putting in a determined attack. Under heavy L.M.G. rifle and mortar fire he set out to assist the wounded in this area. Shelling and sporadic attacks continued throughout the night but Gilliam continued his work, moving about in the open with supreme contempt for the Jap efforts. He seemed to bear a charmed life and several times shells fell within a few feet of him. His cool, calm courage, indifference to enemy fire, his splendid example and his excellent work were magnificent and a revelation to all.’

Mention in despatches: ‘Placed on record 4th October 1945. Oak leaf Emblems in respect of awards to personnel of the Allied Armies are forwarded as requested:- Volunteer Neil Gilliam, G.M., American Field Service.’ (B.M.5237/46 A. G. 4 (Medals)).

Neil McDowdell Gilliam, an Unappreciated Hero of the American Field Force

by J. V. Webb

Among the few American recipients of the George Medal during the Second World War, one of the most extraordinary was Neil McDowdell Gilliam, a member of the American Field Service, and it may be useful to give a few details about this little- known organisation.

The American Field Service had its origins among the American colony in Paris during the First World War, when the idea of providing ambulances for the French troops blossomed into a large organisation throughout the war. When peace returned it was decided to continue the Franco-American collaboration by providing scholarships to enable American youngsters to study in France, and to imbibe the French language and French culture; as a result of this there was a well-established organisation when France went to war again in 1939. Accordingly, the A.F.S. was soon providing ambulances and American volunteers to man them, which they did until the fall of France in June 1940. As neutrals, the Americans were allowed to leave France, and by 1941 the ambulances were serving in Greece (until the Germans invaded that country) and in Syria, with the Free French.

To return to Gilliam, he was born in Hampstead, in September 1923, the son of an American father, a director of an American tobacco company, and seems to have spent his childhood in England. In 1941 he was at Princeton, presumably at the university, and tried to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, but was rejected as being under-age. Undeterred by this failure, he succeeded in joining the American Field Service, which, being a voluntary civilian organisation, was less hide-bound about ages. Gilliam seems to have begun his service in Syria, with the Free French Forces, with No. 2 Section of the A.F.S. He was transferred to North Africa and the Eighth Army, before the unit was sent to India/Burma, in 1943. While in Cairo he had volunteered for the R.A.F., only to be rejected because of high blood pressure.

It is from this period onwards that the History of the American Field Service makes more and more references to Gilliam, the first being on 28 March 1943, when, during a heavy enemy bombardment he extinguished a fire in an operating theatre, ignoring the falling shells.

During his service in Burma, Gilliam was attached to the 23rd Indian Division, mostly with the 3/3rd and 3/10th Gurkhas and the Rajputana Rifles, and is referred to in glowing terms by the regimental histories, particularly by that of the 3rd (Q.A.O.) Gurkhas. During the regiment's battles near Shenam, from May to July 1944, particularly in the capture and defence of the features known as ‘Scraggy' and ‘Gibraltar’, Gilliam’s actions were almost incredible. As a Company Commander wrote later, ‘The battalion had the honour of recommending one of these men (the A.F.S.), Volr. Gilliam, for the George Cross, but he was given the George Medal, as it was understood the Cross could only be awarded to British personnel’. In the book lmphal a Flower on Lofty Heights Gilliam is said to have been recommended originally for the Victoria Cross.

In this last-named book, the author has several pages of enthusiastic descriptions of Gilliam not only tending the wounded in the open during bombardments, but going forward to the firing line (sometimes only ten yards from the enemy) and carrying back wounded men, on a stretcher, or on his shoulders. When ‘Gibraltar’ was finally taken, the Gurkha officers, to show their appreciation of Gilliam's bravery, presented him with a recently-captured. Japanese sword, described as ‘a heavy three-foot blade, gold tassel, bronze hilt encrusted with seed pearls, scabbard decorated with small bronze flowers in low relief. For their part, the Rajputana Rifles made Gilliam an honorary member of their Officers’ Mess, ‘the greatest gift then in their possession’.

The official recommendation, covering three type-written pages, gives the dates of Gilliam's supreme actions as 20/21 May 1944 (one page) and 9/10 June (two pages), although his work obviously covered many more battles and defences. Some idea of the work involved for the stretcher-bearers can be gauged by the War Diaries which give casualty figures for 20/21 May as 93 Japs killed. 12 own troops killed, and 49 wounded, all of whom would have to be carried down the mountain to the waiting Jeep ambulances. It is stated that Gilliam carried a great number himself ‘by stretcher, or on his own back’.

The well-known author of semi-factual war books, who writes as Tim Carew, was, in fact, Lt. J. M. Carew of the 3/10th Gurkhas, who won his M.C. on ‘Scraggy’, where he was twice wounded. His book. Man for Man, based on Gilliam's experiences in Burma, is dedicated to ‘Neil Gilliam. George Medal. French Croix de Guerre, wherever he may be’. Another book by Carew is All This and a Medal Too, a fictionalised account of Carew’s life before and during his service in Burma, and tells how Gilliam attended to Carew’s wounds.

Gilliam’s post-war life is not well-documented, although he seems, like his father, to have had a position with an American tobacco company. He left this post in about 1965, dying a few years later, probably in America. There is no trace of his having died in Britain. There have been many Victoria Crosses awarded for saving life in the face of the enemy, but Gilliam is exceptional in his unflinching and unwearying labours over a period of many months. It is almost incredible that after all the dangers he faced, his only sickness was an attack of malaria. (This article was originally published in the O.M.R.S. Journal, Autumn 1998)