THE BRAVEST OF THE BRAVE
By Jesse Brannam
The Medal of Honor is our nation's highest military citation for courage. One who received it was Lieutenant Audie Murphy, a 130-pound Texan who was the most decorated hero of World War II. He received the Medal for killing, capturing or wounding 240 of the enemy while serving with the 3rd Infantry Division in Germany. After the war he had a successful career in movies.
The American Civil War started in April of 1861 and for the rest of that year the war went badly for the North. After the defeat at Bull Run in July of 1861 morale was very low and there were many desertions. The Navy Department decided that performance of its seamen was so bad that something had to be done to improve morale. It was decided that a "Medal of Honor" would be "bestowed upon those enlisted men in the Navy and Marines who shall distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other seaman-like qualities..." (Officers were excluded from receiving the Medal until 1915 because it was believed they were rewarded by promotions.)
The act establishing the Navy Medal of Honor was approved by Congress and was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in December of 1861. The Navy Act remained basically unchanged for one hundred years, until, in 1963, Congress decreed that the Navy Medal of Honor could only be given for combat action.
On 12 July 1862, an Army Medal of Honor bill, similar to the Navy bill, was signed into law. "Gallantry in action" was the prime requisite for receiving the award. Until 1863, officers were ineligible to receive the Medal.
The first recipients of the Medal were Union soldiers who participated in "The Great Locomotive Chase" on 11 April 1862 from Marietta, Georgia, to a place a few miles south of Chattanooga, Tennessee; a distance of about 90 miles. Wearing civilian clothes, and led by a civilian, James Andrews, the raiders captured a Confederate train and made a run for Huntsville, Alabama. The plan was to destroy railroad bridges and tunnels along the way and thus cripple an important Southern supply route. But the plan failed when the rebel engineer and conductor of the captured train chased them in another locomotive so closely that they were unable to carry out any sabotage.
A few miles from their destination, with fuel wood exhausted, they had to abandon the train and flee. All the raiders were caught and imprisoned. Eight were tried as spies and were hanged. The others were imprisoned and later exchanged for southern prisoners. The surviving raiders later received the Medal of Honor and posthumous awards were made to the families of those hanged. The exception was Andrews, who, being a civilian, was not eligible to receive the Medal of Honor.
During the Civil War many soldiers who received the Medal undoubtedly were deserving of it, but many were not. One regiment saw no action and spent its entire time on duty in Washington, D. C. With only a few days of their enlistment left, and the Battle of Gettysburg imminent, the men agreed to stay in Washington until the battle was over. The War Department was so elated by their cooperation, that each member of the regiment was awarded the Medal of Honor.
During 1916-1917 an Army review board revised the criteria for receiving the Medal to "a deed of personal bravery or self-sacrifice above and beyond the call of duty" in actual combat. The review board removed 911 names from the official Roll of Honor as being "undeserving." (The Navy has never revoked previous awards.)
Mary Walker is the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor. She graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855, and became one of the first women physicians in the country. She served on a volunteer basis as a field surgeon for the North. She requested a commission as an Army doctor but was rejected as "unqualified." After two years treating the wounded, she was captured by the rebels and imprisoned.
Four months later she was traded for a Confederate officer. After the war she lobbied for a promotion to major in recognition of her services. President Andrew Johnson disapproved the promotion but recommended instead that the Medal of Honor be awarded to her, which she received in January of 1866. She would wear it with pride every day thereafter. But in 1917, two years before her death, an Army review board recinded Mary Walker's award. It was restored 60 years later at the urging of a descendant.
The most famous of all Medal winners was Alvin York, a sharp-shooting blacksmith from the mountains of Tennessee. He had registered for the draft as a conscientious objector. But, after many long talks with his commanding officer, who quoted scripture passages on righteous war, and much soul-searching, he said he was satisfied and was sent to France. On 18 October 1918, in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, York's unit was pinned down by machine-gun fire. York went on alone and killed 25 Germans, silenced 35 machine-guns, and captured 132 prisoners. He was promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honor. After the war York returned to Tennessee and the state presented him with a 400-acre farm, where he lived for the rest of his life. (Living recipients of the Medal today are entitled to a monthly pension of $400.)
One of the most amazing acts of heroism by any Medal of Honor recipient occurred on 12 April 1945. U. S. Army Air Force Sergeant Henry "Red" Erwin was a radioman on a B-29 whose mission was to circle about 50 miles from the Japanese mainland and release phosphorous smoke bombs to guide the bombers that followed. The bombs were dropped down a chute, but for some unknown reason one of them exploded in Erwin's face, blinding him. The bomb, spewing chemical flames, fell at his feet. Erwin picked it up, cradled it in his arms, and carried it 30 feet to the front of the plane. All the time he was in terrible agony. His upper body was completely in flames. He screamed for the pilot to open the cockpit window, then threw the bomb into the sea. Erwin later had to suffer through 41 agonizing operations. Seven days after his action, Erwin was presented the Medal of Honor.
Twenty-six Marines who fought in the Pacific received the Medal of Honor for jumping on grenades to protect their comrades. Only two lived to tell about it. Private Richard Sorenson was one of those survivors. In 1944, during the invasion of the Marshall Islands, a Japanese grenade landed near his comrades. He jumped on the grenade and took the full force of the explosion in his chest and abdomen. Miraculously, he recovered from his wounds and received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman.
Anyone who has ever served in the armed forces has at times fantasized about performing a heroic deed and receiving the Medal. Many have performed acts of courage that should have merited the Medal, but because there were no witnesses, no corroboration, their deeds went unrewarded. In many cases, they died while performing acts of heroism. (Before World War I almost all Medals of Honor were awarded to the living. Since that time over half of the awards have been made posthumously.) The Medal is a symbol of the nation's gratitude toward those who have risked, or have given, all for the American ideal.