“Someone could receive the Medal of Honor because they are suicidal; or stupid; or grandiose; or lucky; or opportunistic; because they were in the wrong place at the right time; or because they were courageous.” —from “Interpersonal Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Relevance, Dismissal and Self- Definition” by Arthur H. Feiner, Ph.D., Jessica Kingsley Publishing, 2000.
“It was the right time to be in the wrong place.” —Donald E. Ballard on his Medal of Honor exploits during the Vietnam War.
“It is sometimes said that character is doing the right thing when no one is looking. Something similar is true about the Medal of Honor. There have been countless cases of extreme bravery in combat that didn’t have the requisite two witnesses to qualify for the Medal of Honor. Receiving it is sometimes a case of ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time and simply having to summon the courage to survive. —from “Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey,” by Medal of Honor winner Leo Thorsness, Encounter Books, 2011.
“They didn’t go home at night and prepare themselves to win the Medal of Honor. You don’t practice your courage. It’s just that one day in the crucible of battle at the right time, in the right place, you do the right thing.” —USMC Commandant General James T. Conway, 2009.
The right place, the right time. Or the wrong place at the right time; or maybe being at the wrong place and time, simultaneously. Whatever. The bottom line is that winning the Congressional Medal of Honor is a feat that defies the odds.
General George S. Patton, a man given to flamboyant dramatics and outbursts, once remarked that he would sell his “… immortal soul for that medal.”
President Theodore Roosevelt vigorously campaigned for the Medal during his lifetime, as recognition for his service leading the “Rough Riders” First Cavalry Regiment (including elements of the all Black-10th Cavalry “Buffalo Soldiers”) in Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1899. His wish was finally granted, long after his demise by President Bill Clinton, who presented the medal to his great-grandson Tweed Roosevelt in 2001.
All of this has merely enhanced the mythology surrounding a military award that is often granted posthumously (after death). Of the four recipients who earned it during the Iraqi War, Army Private First Class Ross A. McGinnis and Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith, Marine Corporal Jason L. Dunham, and Navy Seal Petty Officer Michael A. Monsoor all lost their lives before winning the award.
In War and Peace
“As I have told the rest of these young men who have been here before me, I would much rather have that Medal around my neck than to be President of the United States. It is the greatest honor that can come to a man. It is an honor that all of us strive for, but very few of us ever achieve.” –President Harry S. Truman’s address while presenting the Medal of Honor to 15 armed services members, Oct. 12, 1945.
The actual medal has its origins in the Civil War, with its formal adoption as a military decoration in 1862 (it was initially reserved for enlisted personnel, with its eligibility extended to commissioned officers a year later). The criterion for presentation was not inhibited by race, but in keeping with the customs of the times, servicemen of color were not nominated at the same rate as their White comrades-in-arms.
The first “Negro” to receive the medal was Union sailor Robert Blake (no relation to the actor of “Beretta” fame) for repelling a Confederate attack on his gunboat, the U.S.S. Marblehead, on Christmas Day of 1863. His heroics were actually preceded by those of Sergeant William Harvey Carney, at the second Battle of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1963, but Carney was not awarded the Medal of Honor until 1900, when he was 60 years old.
War, like nearly all endeavors undertaken by man, is an activity motivated at least partially by expediency. With the westward expansion of the country, able-bodied fighting men were welcome to counter the resistance of the native people as they were removed from their ancestral lands. In the process, these “Buffalo Soldiers” had ample opportunity to display their valor during the many engagements with their Native American opponents in skirmishes from the Dakotas on down to New Mexico, Arizona and California. As such, as many as two dozen personnel (Black and White) serving in Buffalo Soldier units received the Medal of Honor for their actions in the Indian Wars, and the American excursion into the Caribbean to wrestle control of Cuba from Spain.
During this period, the medal was awarded for exploits both in war and peace time, a period where the only double Medal of Honor winner of African American descent, sailor Robert Sweeney received his accolades for saving drowning shipmates in 1881 and 1883, respectively. (Only one woman to date has won the medal, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, who served as a surgeon during the Civil War.)
The Double Standard of Ethnicity
With the dawn of the 20th century, the policies of Jim Crow, always a presence in American society, cast its influence over the ranks of service people as they were shipped overseas to fight the enemies of democracy. No Black military men received the Medal of Honor in World War I or World War II, a startling omission considering that more than 2.5 million African American men answered the draft call in World War II alone.
The fickle whim of racism did not exclude Black personnel, by the way. While serving with the 4th Infantry Division in World War I, Sergeant (Sgt.) William Shermin, a Jewish native of the Bronx, made the bold decision to leap from his trench during the Aisne-Marne Offensive of August of 1918, then dashed through a no-man’s land crisscrossed with a rifle and machine gun to retrieve his wounded comrades from the reach of enemy gunfire. Struck by a bullet that pierced his helmet to lodge behind his left ear, the 19 year old then took the place of his superiors who were all killed or wounded and led his platoon to safety.
The unchecked anti-Semitism of the times inhibited his recommendation for the Medal of Honor, and Shermin had to settle for the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) (one step below the Medal of Honor) until a push by his family members led to his approval for the higher award years after his death in 1973.
A similar road towards validation was in store for Sgt. Henry Lincoln Johnson. Part of the fabled 369th “Harlem Hell Fighters Infantry Regiment, Johnson and his unit endured a long protracted battle just to get permission to travel to France with the rest of the American Expeditionary Force, where they were “loaned” to the French Army so as to avoid the ire of their White countrymen, who’d refused to fight besides Black troops.
Johnson was forced to prove his mettle on guard duty in the wee hours of May 14, 1918, when nearly two dozen Germans set upon the 5’4” Johnson and a fellow soldier. Using a rifle, a bolo knife, and his fists, he sustained some 20 odd wounds before repelling the invaders and taking his comrade to a field hospital for medical attention.
The French showed their appreciation by bestowing their highest award, the Croix de Guerre with Gold Palm, but like Shermin, he had to settle for the DSC from his own country (this was belatedly awarded during the administration of Bill Clinton, decades after Johnson passed away).
In spite of the loss of most of his left foot and the tibia (shin bone) of his left leg as a result of his war wounds, Johnson was denied a disability pension, which prevented his return to his pre-war job as a railroad porter, and he wound up alcoholic and penniless before dying in 1929.
Desegregation in 1949 started the slow progression toward equality in the Korean War, and by the Vietnam War era, validation and the recognition of sacrifice began to catch up with the push towards equality in the civilian world.
Out of an estimated 258 recipients of the Medal of Honor during the conflict in Vietnam, 20 were African American servicemen. Of these, only former Army medic Clarence Eugene Sasser of Brazoria County, Texas, survives at the time this article appeared.
Rarely has a nation been so well served by a people it has so ill-treated.” —President William J. Clinton, June 1, 2000.
By 1995 the U.S. Army engaged historically Black Shaw University of North Carolina to embark on a study to investigate why no Black participants of World War II had been selected for Medal of Honor consideration. Eventually, 10 candidates were recommended, and seven were selected for the award, which was presented by President Bill Clinton on Jan. 13, 1997.
This in turn, led to similar reviews of veterans of other minority groups whose sacrifice was overlooked through the warped perception of racial bias, including second generation Americans of Japanese descent (Nisei) who served their country in World War II’s European Theater.
A political aura always casts a shadow over the medal, because past winners are often utilized to make public appearances to encourage savings bonds, or promote military recruitment, and so on. While the selection process for the medal is centered on Congressional approval, the act of presenting the award reflects heavily upon the president. As Commander-in-Chief, President George W. Bush posthumously bestowed the medal upon a mere five individuals, while Barack Obama awarded 11 Medals of Honor, of which nine were still alive.
U.S. Marine Afghan veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer made headlines this past March when he became engaged to Bristol Palin, daughter of ex-Alaska governor and former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. In a scenario rivaling anything engineered by supermarket tabloids and celebrity scandal sheets, the wedding was called off amidst rumors that Meyer was previously married in 2008, to a woman he may or may not have divorced.
Meanwhile, the push to correct past injustices continues, as President Obama is slated to convey the Medal of Honor on two of America’s unsung heroes this coming June 2. Sergeants Henry Lincoln Johnson and William Shermin will receive their long overdue laurels as part of the ongoing effort to honor those gallant enough to pick up arms but who were passed over due to race or religion.
For more about the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who have received this award, go to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website at http://www.cmohs.org/.