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SUNDAY,  June 25, 1995


'Above and beyond the call of duty'

The Medal of Honor

By PETER ROPER
The Pueblo Chieftain

  Teddy Roosevelt hungered for one.  Army General George S. Patton bluntly said he'd trade his "immortal soul" to have one placed around his neck.

  The Medal of Honor is a small, five-pointed star that hangs from a blue ribbon, but it comes at such a terrible price that it is an unquestioned tribute to the bravery of anyone who wears it.

  The nation's highest decoration for bravery in combat is 134 years old.  Since its creation during the early days of the Civil War, it has been awarded to 3,409 men and one woman.

Since World War I, its recipients have been the "bravest of the brave."  Many died in the moment they earned it.

  For the living recipients, the medal says its wearer defied terrible dangers and somehow survived.

  • During bitter fighting on Iwo Jima during World War II, Marine Pvt. Jacklyn Lucas flung himself on top of two Japanese grenades to save his companions.   Although severely wounded, the 17-year old Marine miraculously survived.

  • Army Sgt. Clifford Simms wasn't as fortunate.  Leading a patrol in South Vietnam in January 1968, Simms heard one of his soldiers step on a trip wire to a booby trap.  Simms fell on the land mine to protect his men and was killed in the blast.

  Then there are those moments of gallantry:

  • Army Special Forces Sgt. Roy Benavidez on his own initiative went to rescue an ambushed Green Beret team in May 1968.  On arriving at the ambush scene, Benavidez was quickly wounded in the legs and head.  Yet, he provided first aid to his comrades and fought off enemy attacks for eight hours until incoming helicopters were able to get the dead and wounded Green Berets out of the jungle.   Helping the last wounded soldier into a chopper, Benavidez was charged by a group of North Vietnamese soldiers.  He cut down two with the last rounds in his M-16 rifle, but had to kill the third in hand-to-hand fighting.  Finally he was able to climb aboard the chopper as it lifted off.

Two who won medal
and one who wanted it!

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Audie Murphy (above) was the most decorated U.S. soldier in World War II.   He won the Medal of Honor for bravery during a German Tank attack in 1945.

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Teddy Roosevelt (above left) politicked for the medal to no avail.   Clifford Simms (above right), on the other hand, was awarded the medal posthumously for throwing himself on a land mine to save his men.

  THOSE ARE among the reasons the Medal of Honor is so revered.

  Each star and ribbon represents a moment when the recipient ignored fear and danger to perform "a deed of personal bravery or self-sacrifice above and beyond the call of duty while a member of the armed forces in actual combat with an enemy of the nation."

  But it wasn't always that way.

  The origin of the Medal of Honor dates back to 1861 and the early days of the Civil War.  At the time, the Army and Navy had no formal decorations for heroism.  It was hoped that a medal would encourage and reward bravery among the Union soldiers and sailors fighting the Confederates.

  Initially, the medal would be for enlisted men only.  Officers would be rewarded for bravery with promotions.  Also, there was no plan then to reserve the medal for extraordinary acts.  It was an all-purpose award for bravery.

  It's first winners, for example, were the survivors of a daring but unsuccessful attempt by Union spies to seize a Confederate locomotive in Tennessee and burn railroad bridges behind the lines in 1862.

  While that episode is more in the heroic tradition of the modern medal, other Civil War winners received the star and ribbon for commonplace acts.  The most notorious were the 800 medals that were awarded to the 27th Maine Infantry Regiment for doing nothing more than extending their enlistment for four days to help defend Washington, D.C., during the battle at Gettysburg.

  After the war, it was commonplace for veterans to lobby their congressmen for the medal.  Combat veterans, however, resented the easy way the medal was given out to men "who were only doing their duty" and pressed the War Department to make changes.  One reform came in 1890, when the armed services declared that an individual could not nominate himself for a medal.

  Finally, in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a law requiring the War Department to set up a commission of distinguished generals and admirals to review all previous medal awards.

  At the same time, the services created a series of lesser medals to honor acts of courage.  The Medal of Honor would only be awarded for actions "above and beyond the call of duty" and in actual combat.

  As a result the commission revoked many of the medals awarded since 1861 -- including all those given to the 27th Maine.

  Medals in general, and the Medal of Honor in particular, cause ripples of resentment and jealousy among combat veterans, who usually can name individuals who performed heroic acts but never received any honors.

  Teddy Roosevelt thought he deserved the medal but never got it.  On July 1, 1898, Lt. Col. Roosevelt led his Rough Rider cavalry unit in a charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.  The dashing attack made "Teddy" a national hero and helped him get elected governor of New York that November.

  Although Roosevelt was recommended for the medal, the War Decorations Board offered him the lesser honor of a promotion in retired rank.  Insisting on the Medal of Honor, Roosevelt refused the promotion.  He urged friends in Congress to pressure the War Department on his behalf, but in vain.   He never received it.

  Some historians have speculated that War Department officials punished Roosevelt for his outspoken criticism of the supplies sent to American troops in Cuba.

  In 1917, the United States entered the slaughterhouse of World War I.  Before the end of the war in November 1918, American soldiers and Marines won 123 Medals of Honor.

  Army Sgt. Alvin York is perhaps the most famous medal recipient of that war.  The shy, backwoods Tennessee sharpshooter single-handedly killed 25 Germans, knocked out 35 machine gun positions, and captured 132 prisoners in one day of fighting on Oct. 8, 1918.

  Although the War Department intended the medal for heroism in war, Congress got involved in the 1920s and issued the medal for other acts of courage and exploration.  One went to Navy Comdr. Richard Byrd, the arctic explorer, who also flew to the North Pole in May 1926.  The most famous peacetime medal went to Charles Lindbergh, the daring "lone Eagle," who made a solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927.

  Still, it was World War II that set the Medal of Honor apart as the symbol of extraordinary courage.  By then, the armed services had established a hierarchy of awards -- the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star -- for acts of bravery.  The medal would be granted only to a few.   Close to a half-million Americans lost their lives in World War II.  Only 441 servicemen received the Medal of Honor.  Among them, only 190 of the recipients survived the moment they won it.

  One who did was Army Lt. Audie Murphy, a baby-faced but icy Texan who finished the war as the most decorated American soldier.   Facing a German tank attack on Jan. 26, 1945, Murphy ordered his men to retreat and then stood atop a burning half-track and directed artillery fire into the enemy infantry and tanks in front of him.  Asked by the distant artillery officer how close the Germans were to him, Murphy snapped back, "Hold the phone and I'll let you talk to one."  The artillery fire drove back the German attack.

  The Korean War (1950-53) held little of the ticker-tape glamour of World War II, but it was a bitter struggle that cost the lives of 35,000 Americans.  In fighting to defend South Korea against North Korean and Chinese armies, 131 Americans won the Medal of Honor.

Army Pfc. Herbert Pilalaau was among them.  On Sept. 17, 1951, Pilalaau's company was attacked atop Heartbreak Ridge by North Koreans.   As the GIs were driven down the hill, Pilalaau volunteered to stay and cover the retreat with his machine gun and grenades.  His bravery allowed the American unit to regroup and attack, recapturing the ridge minutes later.  Pilalaau, however, had been killed.  His returning company found more than 40 North Korean bodies around his machine gun position.

  Like Korea, the Vietnam War (1964-73) was fought without the full attention of the American nation.  The decade-long war killed 58,000 Americans.  During that time 240 Medals of Honor were awarded before U.S. forces pulled out of the fighting in 1973.

  Heroism took unprecedented forms in Vietnam and one of the medal recipients was Navy Comdr. James Stockdale, a fighter pilot shot down in September 1965.  For eight years, Stockdale and other American prisoners withstood torture, beatings, malnutrition and neglect in North Vietnamese POW camps known as "The Zoo" and "Hell Hole."

  Stockdale was rewarded for his leadership in resisting torture, keeping morale high among the prisoners, and for attempting to commit suicide when he was fearful that one more torture session would make him reveal military secrets.  The attempt frightened Stockdale's interrogators into providing better treatment.

  Stockdale and two other American POWs were presented the Medal of Honor in 1976 by President Gerald Ford.


1995 "The Pueblo Chieftain"
Reprinted by Permission

  Peter Roper is a veteran reporter for "The Pueblo Chieftain" and has met and/or interviewed a full third of the living Medal of Honor recipients at various activities in his hometown of Pueblo, Colorado.

 

 

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