The highest honor that can be bestowed, there have been less than 3,500 awarded since the Medal of Honor's inception during the Civil War.
I watched a gut-wrenching, awe-inspiring, and very moving 90-minute presentation by PBS this evening that chronicled in detail a few of the recipients' stories. Some of the little more than a handful who are still with us appeared in personal interviews with their thoughts interspersed throughout the hour and a half program.
Here are just a few of their stories ... ...
Hershel Williams - 5'6" - turned down twice by the Marines - on Iwo Jima, was asked by his commanding officer if he thought he could man a flame thrower (all of those who had previously been manning flame throwers were dead) and destroy some pillboxes that the enemy was using to great advantage - he couldn't remember what he replied, but was later told that he'd said, "I'll try" ("That sounds like something I might say," he later acknowledged) - was 'escorted' by several men who were trying to protect him from being hit (when he got to the first pillbox, he discovered that he was all alone) - managed single-handedly to destroy seven (7!) pillboxes, using a total of six flame-throwers in all - asked where he'd gotten the other flame throwers, he replied, "I guess I must have kept going back down and getting another" (he really couldn't remember)
Mike Thornton - Navy SEAL - went back to get his severely wounded commanding officer (presumed dead and subsequently abandoned) - on the way back to the beach, found another comrade who'd been wounded and carried the two into the water - flotation of the other two was accomplished by the second one draping his arms around Thornton's neck and supporting the other who was unable to do anything to assist himself - two hours later, they were found and rescued by a search boat
Paul Smith - a career soldier (platoon sergeant, I believe) - died at Bagdad International Airport while staving off the enemy manning a 50-caliber machine gun mounted atop an armored vehicle (the previous gunner had been killed) - story told by the driver of the vehicle, whom Smith kept shouting at to "Get down!"
John Finn - Pearl Harbor - in charge of gun placements and ammunition - had futilely argued to have gun mounts constructed at the airfield - drove to the airfield the morning of the attack, dragged a large caliber gun out of a destroyed airplane, temporarily mounted it on a pile of lumber and began firing at as many incoming Japanese aircraft as he could 'bear on'
Tibor Rubin - Hungarian - initially rejected because he couldn't speak English very well - a Jew - concentration camp - freed by Allies - vowed to come to America and try to repay this country - was called upon to defend a hill all by himself (commanding officer actually said, "Get the funny talking son of a bitch") - left on top of the hill with lots of grenades and two guns - spent the night praying to God, Moses, Allah, Buddha, and everyone else he could think of in addition to spreading his weaponry around - "I have to make them think there are a lot of people up here" - attack by North Koreans came at 4am - miraculously, he held the hill for twenty-four hours
Alvin York - pacifist - declined the conscientious objector status achieved for him by his family's pastor "because my ancestors told me to go fight" - down to his last six bullets - six men coming at him - he shot the 6th one, then the 5th, then the 4th, etc. - said later, "It's like hunting turkeys. You don't want the first ones to know that the back ones are going down."
So many wonderful quotes, including a lot of humor, by these men. I couldn't take notes fast enough, I apologize, but here are three more ... ...
"I seen it was gonna be a bad day."
"My good looks are gone."
"What better place to die than in the arms of your comrades?"
None consider themselves 'heroes' and all who still wear the Medal of Honor wear it with pride for all those who didn't survive. Seventeen have received the Medal of Honor twice! (I can't even imagine such a possibility.)
The word 'fear' came up again and again. One said, "Fear can save your life, but you can't let it control you." "My anger became so great that I forgot to be afraid," said another.
Seventy-five medics in all have received the Medal of Honor, five chaplains, and included in this illustrious group of Medal of Honor recipients is an African-American soldier in the Civil War who took up a downed flag bearer's banner (dropping his own weapon in the process) before it could hit the ground.
Only one woman - a doctor - Mary Edwards Walker - Civil War - wore trousers underneath her skirt and was heavily criticized - made many trips to the Confederate side to treat wounded - believed amputation was a last resort - captured by the South and paraded throughout the streets of Richmond as a laughing stock - Medal rescinded years later because she was 'only' a civilian, but refused to give it up (in fact, she wore it every day for the rest of her life, or so the story goes)
I kept waiting for Audie Murphy's name and story to come up. It never did. He was one of my childhood heroes. I had always heard that he was the most decorated soldier of World War II. I thought, "What if he wasn't one of the most decorated?"
And so I went looking (on the internet, of course!) -- and yes, he was the 'most decorated'. There are so many websites that you can delve into at your leisure. It's incredible, actually! I'll get you started with one or two reference sites below, and then you can begin to lose yourself in many many many many hours of history.
As with life, the Medal of Honor's history is not without its negative side. I have chosen not to include detailed accounts of the one that was returned, nor the one whose recipient spent the vast majority of the rest of his life criticizing the United States for its 'imperialism'.
I chose, instead, to describe positives. That is the way in which I try to approach life. I am not always successful, but I try.
I am proud to be an American, and am even more proud of myself that I took the opportunity to vote yesterday! (And no, I did not write my own name in.)
This site has a few of the many stories of valor and was linked from pbs.org.
This one has the number of Medal of Honor recipients listed by 'conflict'. You will notice a huge discrepancy between the numbers issued during the Civil War (over 1500, nearly half of the total) and all of those afterwards. The explanation given, as I recall, was that soldiers who were willing to re-enlist were offered the Medal of Honor as an enticement.