CLARKS, Neb. -- Little did an 11-year-old Ludmilla "Millie" Gatiloff know that her Russian family's fight for survival under World War II Japanese occupation in China would lead to a second marriage decades later to a U.S. serviceman serving in Asia during the war.

Their shared experience of living through the horrors of World War II in Asia served as a catalyst to a marriage that began in the 1970s and continued through her husband Spencer Tedford's death in 2019.

The pair met in California and moved to Clarks, Neb., where Millie Gatiloff Tedford still lives. On Tuesday, she was presented with a Congressional Gold Medal honoring her husband's 1944 service and sacrifice with the Army.

Steve Johnson, a former 75th Ranger Regiment Association, presented the award to at the Clarks VFW on Tuesday, which was also Millie Tedford's 88th birthday.

Like Spencer Tedford, Johnson's father served in Burma, now known as Myanmar.

"My father would be very honored that I now have an opportunity to 'give back' to a unit he played such a vital role in keeping alive in 1944," Johnson said.

"In a way, this trip will be like returning home since as a military dependent, I lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, from the 6th to 9th grades," Johnson said prior to the ceremony.

Both Spencer's and Millie's separate struggles to survive in the region during the war are included int he 2004 book, Nebraskans Remember, by Barbara Ann Dush and Nancy Sue Hansen.

Spencer was one of approximately 200 infantrymen out of an original 3,000 who were fit for combat when his unit seized their objective of the Myitkyina airfield. He was wounded while fighting on the Khaki Combat Team, 3rd Battalion, and received a Purple Heart for his heroism.

Millie's family survival began during the 1917 Russian revolution and cival war when the Bolsheviks gained power and her parents were among 100,000-200,000 Russians who fled to Harbin, Manchuria. By the time they reached Shanghai, her parents had two boys. Millie was born in 1934 in Shanghai, where her father died.

Her family survived American bombings on Japanese targets. Both of her brothers were taken out of school for a death march, with one brother eventually returning home and another never seen from again.

After being sent to a camp in the Philippines with other post-war Russian refugees, Millie and her brother were sponsored by a San Francisco church, eventually reuniting with their mother years later.

Only two people who served with Spencer Tedford in Merrill's Marauders, 101-year-old Gabriel Kinney of Alabama and 98-year-old Russell Hamler of Pennsylvania, remain alive.