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FDR ordered Medal for MacArthur
The author is writing in reference to James Humes’ June 3 commentary
“Ike, unlike MacArthur, eschewed Medal of Honor.”
From its inception in 1862 the Medal of Honor was always intended as an award for the common soldier. The Navy/Marine Corps award was created for award only to enlisted sailors and Marines, and remained unavailable for award to officers until the revisions of 1917. The Army medal was established for award only to enlisted personnel, but was extended to officers within two years of its creation.
In the Medal’s 139-year history, it has been awarded to fewer than two dozen general officers and admirals, less than one-half of 1 percent of the total Medals of Honor awarded. Throughout the Medal’s distinguished history, it has remained the common soldier’s award.
No general officers received the award during the Vietnam War, and only Gen. William Dean received it during the Korean War. During World War II, Douglas MacArthur was one of seven general officers (it was also awarded to three Navy admirals) to receive the award. Numbered with MacArthur was Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, the “last of the fighting generals,” and Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who made the D-Day landing despite a fibrillating heart. Also numbered with these WWII generals who received Medals of Honor was the intrepid leader of Marines in the Pacific, Gen. Alexander Vandegrift. Each of these 10 World War II generals and admirals were cited for heroism in actions that involved direct conflict with the armed enemies of the United States. Six of the 10 received their awards posthumously.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was, in fact, nominated for the Medal of Honor for his leadership of the Allied Forces during World War II. His nomination was rejected by the War Department Decorations Board in a memo to the ASF Military Personnel Division on July 23, 1945. Both Gens. Eisenhower and John J. Pershing had been nominated for their leadership in two consecutive world wars. The 1945 rejection of the award to the two general officers by the Office of Secretary of War included the first written representation to Congress that cases of outstanding leadership should be recognized by specially authorized gold medals authorized by Congress (similar to the award to Billy Mitchell), and that the award of the Medal of Honor should be reserved for awarding only for gallantry in action.
Douglas MacArthur certainly had a different perspective toward the Medal of Honor than did Ike. MacArthur’s father was himself a recipient of the award. And, while there is no disputing the fact that the junior MacArthur’s award was political in nature, the case can also quickly be made that the reason the younger MacArthur had not previously received the award was also political in nature.
A much younger Douglas MacArthur was nominated for the Medal of Honor for a daring and bloody action during the Vera Cruz campaign of 1914. MacArthur’s tendency to ignore rules and follow his own instincts had already angered some commanders, and the young Army captain had performed his daring but vital mission without the knowledge of Gen. Frederick Funston. MacArthur’s first nomination for the Medal of Honor was rejected because the Army Decorations Board believed such an award would encourage other officers to perform heroic actions without the knowledge or consent of their superior officers.
Douglas MacArthur led combat troops during World War I, becoming one of the most decorated heroes of that war after earning the Distinguished Service Medal and six Silver Stars.
The flamboyant MacArthur was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor for his leadership during the opening months of the World War II invasion of the Philippine Islands. Two weeks after Pearl Harbor, during which time the Philippine Islands had also been subject of both aerial and land assault, MacArthur implemented War Plan Orange No. 3 (WPO-3), a plan that had been drafted in 1928 for the defense of the Philippine Islands in the event of attack. The plan called for allforces to pull back to the peninsula of Bataan to wage a delaying action for up to six months, while reinforcements from the United States were marshaled to repel any invading force.
On Feb. 22, 1942, Gen. MacArthur placed his family’s personal effects in the submarine Swordfish with instructions for them to be held until claimed by the MacArthurs’ legal heirs. As the American general who loved the Philippine Islands evacuated President Manuel Quezon to the safety of Australia, he had resigned himself to a fate of remaining with his troops which, by then, appeared doomed to defeat. As President Quezon boarded the Swordfish, he placed his signet ring on MacArthur’s finger with the statement, “When they find your body, I want them to know that you fought for my country.”
The day after the Swordfish left Manila, President Roosevelt ordered Gen. MacArthur to escape the Philippines to nearby Mindanao, then on to Australia. The U.S. president was cognizant of the devastating impact on American morale that the death or capture of the 62-year-old American hero would be. MacArthur seriously considered resigning his commission, then enlisting as a volunteer in the Philippine defensive force at Bataan. It was only with the insightful pleading of MacArthur’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Richard K. Sutherland, that MacArthur was eventually convinced to follow the president’s order and depart the Philippines. Sutherland’s effective argument was based upon his assumption that the reason Gen. MacArthur was being ordered to Australia was to build and train the invading force that would return to liberate the Philippine Islands. MacArthur came to believe this supposition true, and departed the Philippine Islands on March 15 in a PT boat under the command of Lt. John Duncan Bulkeley. Lt. Bulkeley was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor for this and other actions during the period. So intense was the Japanese pressure on the islands during MacArthur’s escape, most junior officers back in the Malinta Tunnel on Corregidor believed the general’s chances of successful escape were less than one in five.
After arriving safely in Australia, MacArthur quickly became the subject of scorn in enemy propaganda. In Germany, Italy and Japan, newspapers and radio broadcasts portrayed the man who had so reluctantly left the island under the president’s insistence and repeated orders as the “fleeing general.” It was to counter this propaganda that Gen. George C. Marshall recommended the award of the Medal of Honor, and President Roosevelt concurred. It would certainly have been inappropriate, under these circumstances, for MacArthur to turn down the award.
While historians and veterans have long debated the role of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in World War II . . . “with the help of God and a few Marines, MacArthur took the Philippines” . . . his courage and valor throughout a lifetime of military service can not be negated by his flamboyant nature or disregard for authority or superior officers. The annals of Medal of Honor history were written by soldiers who performed heroic deeds voluntarily (without orders) - and even against orders.
Douglas MacArthur was one of these, a human being with his own weaknesses and imperfections in character that annoyed and often embittered others. But, repeatedly throughout his distinguished career, he rose above the limits of human ability to achieve and accomplish brave and noble deeds. His Medal of Honor was awarded for both leadership, and for incredible valor in the face of armed enemies of the United States. His Medal of Honor was, in this historian’s view, well deserved.
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