March 25, 2019 National Medal of Honor Day

Today, March 25, 2019, we honor those recipients of our nation’s highest award for military valor.  Seventy-nine of them are alive, today.  Possibly without exception, these are people who will tell you, they are not the heroes.  They were simply doing a job and those who would not come home alive, are the real heroes.

At the time of the American Revolution, European armies bestowed honors, only on high-ranking officers who achieved victory in battle. There was no such honor for the common soldier.  As General, George Washington wrote the “road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is…open to all”.

There was precedent for such an award in the Colonial military, but only under limited circumstances.  Congressional medals were awarded to Washington himself on March 25, 1776, following the British evacuation of Boston;  to General Horatio Gates in November 1777 in recognition of his victory over British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga;  and to Major-General “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, father of Civil War-era Confederate General Robert E. Lee, in recognition of his 1779 attack on the British position at Paulus Hook, New Jersey.

A “Fidelity Medallion” was awarded to three militia men in 1780, for the capture of John André, the British officer and spy whose capture uncovered the treachery of General Benedict Arnold.

MeritThe future 1st President’s general orders of August 7, 1782 established a “Badge of Military Merit” to recognize those members of the Continental Army who performed “any singular meritorious action”.

In time, Washington’s Badge of Military Merit morphed into what we now know as the Purple Heart, but the precedent had been set.  This was the first such honor available to any U.S. military service member, who had distinguished himself by act of valor.

Congress created the “Meritorious Service Citation Certificate” around the time of the Mexican-American war, recognizing “any private soldier who had distinguished himself by gallantry performed in the presence of the enemy”.  The award would come in and out of use in the decades that followed, later becoming the Distinguished Service Medal, an award available to United States and foreign military service personnel and, in limited circumstances, civilians.

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H/T http://www.worldnationaldays.com/national-medal-of-honor-day-2019/

In the early days of the Civil War, General-in-chief of the army Winfield Scott was against such an award.  Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles adopted the idea on behalf of the Navy, following Scott’s retirement in October 1861.  President Abraham Lincoln signed “Public Resolution #82” on December 21, 1861, creating a Navy Medal of Honor.

An Army version of the medal was created the following July, first awarded to six federal soldiers for hijacking the Confederate locomotive, “The General”.  Leader of the raid James Andrews was caught and hanged as a Union spy.  Andrews alone was deemed ineligible for the Medal of Honor, as he was a civilian.

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The Great Locomotive Chase, by Bruce Kay

Medals of Honor are not awarded casually.  The award is reserved only for the bravest of the brave, and for well-documented acts of valor. Permit me to share a few examples, each from his own moment in history.

Few soldiers on the Civil War battlefield had a quicker route to death’s door than the color bearer.  National and regimental flags were all-important sources of inspiration and communication.

Reverend W. Jamison Thomson of Hartford, Connecticut described the importance of the battle flag: “It represents the cause, is the rallying point, while it is aloft proclaims that victory is still intended, is the center of all eyes, is the means of communication between soldiers, officers, and nation,” he said, “and after the engagement, and after many of them, is their marked memento so long as its identity can be preserved.

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Pvt. Joseph E. Brandle served as regimental color bearer, with the 17th Michigan Infantry.  Private Brandle earned the Medal of Honor for his actions of November 16, 1863, near Lenoire, Tennessee…”…[H]aving been twice wounded and the sight of one eye destroyed, [he] still held to the colors until ordered to the rear by his regimental commander.”

During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, Chaplain’s assistant and regimental musician Calvin Pearl Titus of Vinton, Iowa, volunteered to scale the 30-ft walls of Peking, raising the American flag over the outer walls of the city.  President Theodore Roosevelt awarded Titus the medal of Honor, for “Gallant and daring conduct in the presence of his colonel and other officers…”  He was “the last color bearer”.

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Sergeant York

On October 8, 1918, Tennessee native Corporal Alvin Cullum York of the 82nd Division lead a group of seventeen against a numerically superior German force, dug in at Chatel-Chehery, France.

Let York’s citation tell the story: “…After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and three other non-commissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading seven men, he charged with great daring toward a machine gun nest, which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with four officers and 128 men and several guns.

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Audie Murphy

Kingston Texas 2nd Lieutenant Audie Murphy found himself senior officer of a company of 18, whittled down from 235 by disease, wounds and casualties.  On January 26, 1945, Murphy’s small force found itself under assault by six German tanks and a large infantry force.

A man the Marine Corps had once turned down for being underweight and underage, Murphy climbed aboard a burning tank destroyer.  Out in the open and exposed to German fire from three sides, the 19-year old single-handedly fought off the entire assault, killing or wounding fifty and causing the German tanks to withdraw.

The Medal at LastFather Emil Kapaun selflessly sacrificed himself on behalf of his fellow prisoners in 1951, in the frozen hell of a North Korean prison camp.  President Barack Obama awarded Kapaun’s family the Medal of Honor during a ceremony in the east wing of the White House, on April 11, 2013.

Chaplain Kapaun’s body lies in an unmarked mass grave, somewhere in Pyoktong county.

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Sammy Lee Davis

PFC Sammy Lee Davis distinguished himself during the small hours of November 18, 1967, when the 4th Artillery of 9th Infantry Division came under heavy attack west of Cai Lay, Republic of Vietnam.

Repeatedly knocked to the ground by enemy mortar fire and suffering multiple injuries, the Cannoneer from Dayton, Ohio fought back first with a heavily damaged, burning howitzer, and then with recoilless rifle and machine gun.

Two Medals of honor were awarded posthumously, to Delta Force snipers Gary Gordon and Randy Shugart, for their hopeless defense of the crash site of a downed UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, against hundreds of fighters loyal to the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.

Corporal Jason Lee Dunham of Scio New York deliberately threw himself on an Iraqi grenade on April 14, 2004, saving the lives of fellow Marines at the sacrifice of his own life.  He was twenty-two.

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Corporal Jason Lee Dunham

Sergeant 1st class Jared Monti of Abington Massachusetts was killed in the mountains of Nuristan Province in Afghanistan, while attempting to rescue a wounded soldier from a hail of small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire.

Jared Monti
Jared Monti

Monti was the sixth person from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to be awarded the Medal of Honor.  The Lee Brice song “I Drive your Truck” voted Song of the Year at the 49th annual Academy of Country Music Awards, is Jared’s story and that of his father Paul Monti, a former science teacher at the Stoughton High School, in Stoughton Massachusetts.

The nation’s highest medal for military valor has been awarded 3,493 times since its inception in 1861, to 3,474 distinct recipients.  621 were awarded posthumously. Jack Lucas became the youngest Medal of Honor recipient of the last century, jumping on not one but Two grenades, in Iwo Jima.

Today, March 25, 2019, we honor those recipients of our nation’s highest award for military valor.  Seventy-nine of them are alive, today.  Possibly without exception, these are people who will tell you, they are not the heroes.  They were simply doing a job and those who would not come home alive, are the real heroes.

If that is not the very definition of heroism, it should be.

 

A Trivial Matter
“The award is not called the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Contrary to popular belief, the official title of the highest U.S. military distinction is simply the Medal of Honor, not the Congressional Medal of Honor. The confusion may have arisen because the president presents the award “in the name of Congress.” There is also a Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which represents recipients of the Medal of Honor, maintains their records and organizes reunion events, among other responsibilities”. H/T History.com

February 20, 1945 Falling on Grenades: the Indestructible Jack Lucas

On one training jump, both parachutes failed.  Somehow, Lucas fell 3,500-feet and sustained only minor injuries. According to his team leader, “Jack was the last one out of the plane and the first one on the ground”.

In the days and weeks following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, enlistment and recruiting offices across the nation were flooded with volunteers. Birmingham Alabama saw 600 men in the first few hours, alone. In Boston, lines snaked out the door as men waited for hours, to volunteer.

But for his age, Jack Lucas would have been right there with them.

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At 5’8″ and a muscular 180-pounds, Jacklyn Harrell “Jack” Lucas was big for his age. On August 8, 1942, Lucas forged his mother’s signature on parental consent papers and claimed to be seventeen, enlisting in the United States Marine Corps. He was fourteen years old.

A year later, a letter to a girlfriend from V Amphibious Corps at Pearl Harbor, revealed his true age of fifteen. Military censors had Lucas removed from his combat unit and nearly sent him home, but Jack was vehement.  He was assigned to driving a truck, but this was a problem.  Being in the “rear with the gear” was not his idea of military service.  Lucas got into so many fights he was court-martialed, sentenced to five months of breaking rocks, given nothing but bread & water.

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Iwo Jima

Lucas was released from the brig in January 1945, when he deserted his post, stowing away on the transport USS Deuel to get closer to the action.  He turned himself in on February 8, volunteering to fight.  Jack turned seventeen on February fourteen.  Six days later, he got his wish.

February 20 was day two of the five-week battle for Iwo Jima, some of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific war, in WW2.   Advancing toward a Japanese airstrip under heavy fire, Lucas and three Marines took shelter in a trench, only to realize there were eleven Japanese soldiers, barely feet away. He managed to shoot two when his rifle jammed, looking down as that first grenade, came over the parapet.

Without a moment’s thought, Lucas dove over his fellow Marine and onto the grenade, as another fell by his side.  Let his Medal of Honor citation, pick up the story:

381“Quick to act when the lives of the small group were endangered by two grenades which landed directly in front of them, Private First Class Lucas unhesitatingly hurled himself over his comrades upon one grenade and pulled the other one under him, absorbing the whole blasting force of the explosions in his own body in order to shield his companions from the concussion and murderous flying fragments”.

Only when a second company moved through the area, did someone realize he was still alive.

Six days later, Jack Lucas’ deserter classification was removed from his record.  In time, all seventeen of his military convictions were overturned.  He’d endure twenty-one surgeries and even then, no fewer than two hundred pieces of metal remained in his body, some the size of .22-caliber bullets.

Jack Lucas was ruled unfit for duty and discharged on September 18, 1945.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S Truman, on October 5, at seventeen the youngest recipient of the nation’s highest award for military valor, since the Civil War.

The man had more than earned the name “indestructible”, but wait.  There’s more.

Lucas earned a business degree and returned to military service at age thirty-one, this time with the 82nd Airborne, of the United States Army.  On one training jump, both parachutes failed.  Somehow, Lucas fell 3,500-feet and sustained only minor injuries. According to his team leader, “Jack was the last one out of the plane and the first one on the ground“.

Two weeks later, he was back to jumping out of perfectly good aircraft.

Jacklyn Lucas, older

Lucas was married several times in civil life, including to one woman, who attempted to have him killed.  He later wrote his autobiography with help from writer D.K. Drum, appropriately entitled, “Indestructible”.

 

The USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) is a Wasp-class amphibious assault vessel, commissioned in 2001. When her keel was laid, Jack Lucas placed his Medal of Honor citation inside her hull, where it remains, to this day.

On August 3, 2006, sixteen living Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipients including Jack Lucas were presented the Medal of Honor flag by Commandant of the Marine Corps General Michael Hagee, in front of over a thousand family, friends, and fellow Marines. Lucas commented, “To have these young men here in our presence — it just rejuvenates this old heart of mine. I love the Corps even more knowing that my country is defended by such fine young people.”

Jacklyn Lucas

The Indestructible Jacklyn Lucas died of Leukemia on June 5, 2008.  He was eighty years old.  On September 18, 2016, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced plans to build a new Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. DDG-125 is expected to be commissioned in 2023, to be named in his honor, the USS Jack H. Lucas.

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Artist’s depiction, USS Jack H Lucas
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

January 13, 1997 Buffalo Soldier

From the second floor of a house, Lieutenant Fox directed American defensive fire by radio, adjusting each salvo closer to his own position.  Warned that his final adjustment would bring down artillery fire on his own head, the soldier who received the message was stunned at the response. 1st Lt. John Fox’ last known words, were “Fire it.” 

In September 1867, Private John Randall of Troop G, US 10th Cavalry Regiment, was assigned to escort two civilians on a hunting trip. The hunter became the hunted when a band of 70 Cheyenne warriors swept down on the trio. The two civilians were killed in the initial attack and Randall’s horse shot out from under him.

hardpicCornered in a washout under some railroad tracks, single handed, Randall held off the attack with his revolver, despite a gunshot wound to his shoulder and no fewer than 11 lance wounds.

By the time help arrived, 13 Cheyenne warriors lay dead.  Private Randall was still standing. Word spread among the Cheyenne about a new kind of soldier, “who had fought like a cornered buffalo; who like a buffalo had suffered wound after wound, yet had not died; and who like a buffalo had a thick and shaggy mane of hair.”

The US 10th Cavalry, formed on September 21, 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was the first unit of “Negro Cavalry”, an all-black unit which would soon be joined by the 9th, 24th and 25th Cavalry, and come to be known as “Buffalo Soldiers”.

Several all-black regiments were formed during the Civil War, including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry depicted in the film, “Glory”.  The “Buffalo Soldiers” were the first peacetime all-black regiments in the regular Army.

The original units fought in the American Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, the Border War and two World Wars, amassing 23 Medals of Honor by the end of 1918.

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At one time, “Buffalo Soldiers” was a catch-all term, used to describe American troops of African ancestry. Today the term is used as a badge of honor only by those units who trace their lineage to the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments. Here, the 92nd Division (segregated) in the Argonne Forest of WW1. The 92nd’s insignia is a buffalo: a tribute to their predecessors.

The old met with the new during WWII when Mark Matthews, veteran of the Pancho Villa Expedition, WW1, WW2 and the Battle of Saipan, was sent to train with the Tuskeegee Airmen.  In the end, Matthews would prove too old to fly.  A member of the Buffalo Soldiers Drum & Bugle Corps, Matthews would play taps at Arlington National Cemetery, always from the woods. Blacks of the era were not permitted at “white” funerals.  1st Sergeant Matthews retired shortly before the Buffalo Soldiers were disbanded, part of President Truman’s initiative to integrate United States’ armed forces..

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1st Lt. John Robert Fox

In December 1944, the segregated 366th Infantry Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division was fighting in the vicinity of Sommocolonia, in northern Italy.  On Christmas day, German soldiers began to infiltrate the town, disguised as civilians.  A heavy artillery barrage began in the early morning hours of the 26th, followed by an overwhelming attack of enemy ground forces.  Vastly outnumbered, American infantry were forced to conduct a fighting retreat.

First Lieutenant John R. Fox, forward observer for the 598th Field Artillery Battalion, volunteered to stay behind with a small Italian force, to help slow the enemy advance.  From the second floor of a house, Lieutenant Fox directed American defensive fire by radio, adjusting each salvo closer to his position.  Warned that his final adjustment would bring down artillery fire on his own head, the soldier who received the message was stunned at the response. 1st Lt. John Fox’ last known words, were “Fire it.”

When American forces retook the town, Lieutenant Fox’ body was found with those of about 100 German soldiers.

The King James Bible translates John 15:13, as “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends“.  After the war, Sommocolonia erected a Memorial.  A tribute to nine brave soldiers who gave their lives, that their brothers might live.  Eight Italians, and one American.

In a January 13, 1997 ceremony at the White House, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously, to the family of 1st Lieutenant John R. Fox.

Memorial Day celebration in Washington, D.C.1st Sergeant Mark Matthews, the last of the Buffalo Soldiers, died of pneumonia on September 6, 2005 at age of 111.  A man who forged papers in order to join at age fifteen and once had to play taps from the woods, was buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, section 69, grave #4215.

An American Hero.

The rank of General of the Armies is equivalent to that of a six-star general, the highest possible operational rank of the United States Armed Forces.  The rank has been awarded only twice, once posthumously to George Washington, and only once to an active-duty officer: John Joseph Pershing.

Then-1st Lieutenant Pershing served with the Buffalo Soldiers from October 1895 to May 1897 plus another six months in Cuba, and came to respect soldiers of African ancestry as “real soldiers”, in every way.  As West Point instructor beginning in 1897, Pershing was looked down upon and insulted by white cadets and officers, aggrieved over Pershing’s strict and unyielding disciplinary policies.

The press sanitized the favored insult to “Black Jack,” delivered, no doubt, behind the man’s back, but that’s not they said.

During WW1, General Pershing bowed to the segregationist policies of President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker.  It seems Pershing understood what the Connecticut academic and the Ohio politician had failed to learn, a principle the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. would spell out, some fifty years later:

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools”.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 4, 1950 Wingmen to the End

Flying overhead, Hudner could see his wing man below, severely injured, his leg trapped in the crumpled cockpit, struggling to get out of the burning aircraft.

Jesse LeRoy Brown was born in 1926 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the son of a schoolteacher and a warehouse worker.   A mixed-race young man of African, Chickasaw and Choctaw ancestry, Jesse grew up in a time of real discrimination.  Brown had all the disadvantages of a black child growing up under depression-era segregation, but his parents kept him on the “straight & narrow”.  Julia and John Brown made sure their kids stuck with their studies.  Such parental devotion would serve them well.

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Thomas Jerome Hudner, Jr. was born in 1924, the son of a successful Irish grocer from Fall River, Massachusetts who went on to attend the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, in 1939.

The pair could not have come from more different backgrounds, but both men became  carrier pilots with the United States Navy, and served together during the conflict in Korea.

110kqivOn June 25, 1950, ten divisions of the North Korean People’s Army launched a surprise invasion of their neighbor to the south. The 38,000-man army of the Republic of Korea didn’t have a chance against 89,000 men sweeping down in six columns from the north. Within hours, the shattered remnants of the army of the ROK and its government, were streaming south toward the capital of Seoul.

The United Nations security council voted to send troops to the Korean peninsula. In November, the People’s Republic of China entered the conflict in support of their Communist neighbor.

By December, 120,000 troops of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) had all but overrun the 15,000 men of the US X Corps, who found themselves surrounded in the frozen wasteland of the Chosin Reservoir. Dozens of close air support missions were being flown every day to keep the Chinese army at bay.

At 13:38 on December 4, Thomas “Lou” Hudner took off from the carrier USS Leyte, part of a six-aircraft flight with squadron executive officer Lieutenant Commander Dick Cevoli, Lieutenant George Hudson, Lieutenant Junior Grade Bill Koenig, Ensign Ralph McQueen and Hudner’s wingman, Ensign Jesse LeRoy Brown.

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“Off To The Chosin” by Nicolas Trudgian

An hour later, Koenig radio’d Brown that his aircraft appeared to be trailing fuel.  Chinese infantry were known to hide in the snow, and ambush incoming aircraft.  It’s likely that Brown was hit by small arms fire, from the ground.  Losing oil pressure with the aircraft all but impossible to control, Brown had no choice but to crash land on a snow covered mountain side. Flying overhead, Hudner could see his wing man below, severely injured, his leg trapped in the crumpled cockpit, struggling to get out of the burning aircraft.

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“Wingmen to the End” by Gareth Hector Hat tip Adam Makos, author of “Devotion, an epic story of heroism, friendship and sacrifice”, https://www.adammakos.com/devotion-book.html

Hudner did the unthinkable and deliberately crash landed his own aircraft.  Now injured himself, Hudner hobbled across the snow to the aid of his trapped wing man. He scooped snow onto the fire with his bare hands in the 15° cold, burning himself in the process as Brown faded in and out of consciousness. A Marine Corps helicopter landed at 15:00, piloted by Lieutenant Charles Ward.  The two went at the stricken aircraft with an axe for 45 minutes, but could not free the trapped pilot.

The two were considering Jesse’s plea that they amputate his trapped leg with that axe, when the pilot faded away for the last time. Jesse Brown’s last words were “Tell Daisy I love her”.

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They had to leave. “Night was coming on” Hudner later explained, “and the helicopter was not equipped to fly in the dark. We’ll come back for you”, he said.  Jesse Brown could no longer hear.

Hudner pleaded the following day to be allowed to go back to the crash site, but his superiors were unwilling to risk further loss of life. Two days later, the site was bombed with napalm, to prevent the aircraft and the body from falling into Chinese or North Korean hands.  Jesse Brown’s body was still stuck in the cockpit though, by this time, his clothes had been removed.

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H/T Sierra Hotel Aeronautics

American pilots recited the Lord’s prayer, as they watched his body being consumed by the flames.

Jesse LeRoy Brown, the first Black Naval Aviator in American history, became the first to die, sixty-eight years ago, today.  He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart,  posthumously.

Thomas Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on that frozen mountainside. One of eleven to be so honored following the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, Hudner would remain the only Naval aviator awarded the Medal of Honor, during the entire conflict in Korea.

In July of 2013, Thomas Hudner returned to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, in fulfillment of a 63-year-old promise.  “We’ll come back for you“.

Political relations with the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea were as frigid at that time as the frozen mountains of the Chosin Reservoir, yet Hudner received permission to return to the site. He was 88 at the time. In the end, wretched weather hampered the effort.  North Korean authorities told him to return when the weather was more cooperative.

Recently, American President Donald Trump has worked toward a thaw in relations on the Korean peninsula, in cooperation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Less than a week ago, a South Korean train crossed the demilitarized zone into North Korea, a move which would have been unheard of, for much of the last seventy years.

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“Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas Hudner, left, meets Commander Nathan Scherry following the christening of the USS Thomas Hudner in Bath, Maine, on April 1, 2017. Scherry will command the new guided-missile destroyer”.  H/T, KDSK.com

The future is uncertain, but Korean rapprochement comes too late for Lou Hudner and Jesse Brown.  Thomas Jerome “Lou” Hudner passed away at his home in Concord, Massachusetts, on November 13, 2017, and was buried a with honors, at Arlington National Cemetery.  He was 93.  The remains of Jesse LeRoy Brown were never recovered from that North Korean mountainside.

Three days ago, Hudner’s wife of fifty years Georgea was on-hand to witness the United States Navy commission its newest naval warship in Boston.  The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, USS Thomas Hudner.

Afterward – Do you believe in Ghosts?

November 2, 1950  The Shepherd wore Combat Boots

Chaplain Kapaun once lost his Mass kit to enemy fire. He earned a Bronze Star in September of 1950, when he ran through intense enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. His was no rear-echelon ministry.

Kapaun5Emil Joseph Kapaun was the son of Czech immigrants, a farm kid who grew up in 1920s Kansas. Graduating from Pilsen High, class of 1930, he spent much of the 30s in theological seminary, becoming an ordained priest of the Roman Catholic faith on June 9, 1940.

Kapaun served as military chaplain toward the end of WWII, before leaving the army in 1946, and rejoining in 1948.

Father Kapaun was ordered to Korea a month after the North invaded the South, joining the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, out of Fort Bliss.

His unit entered combat at the Pusan perimeter, moving steadily northward through the summer and fall of 1950. Kapaun would minister to the dead and dying, performing baptisms, hearing first confessions, offering Holy Communion and celebrating Mass from an improvised altar set up on the hood of a jeep.

He once lost his Mass kit to enemy fire. He earned a Bronze Star in September that year, when he ran through intense enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. His was no rear-echelon ministry.

Kapaun2A single regiment was attacked by the 39th Chinese Corps on November 1, and completely overrun the following day. For the 8th Cav., the battle of Unsan was one of the most devastating defeats of the Korean War. Father Kapaun was ordered to evade, an order he defied. He was performing last rites for a dying soldier, when he was seized by Chinese communist forces.

Prisoners were force marched 87 miles to a Communist POW camp near Pyoktong, in North Korea. Conditions in the camp were gruesome. 1st Lt. Michael Dowe was among the prisoners, it’s through him that we know much of what happened there. Dowe later described Father Kapaun trading his watch for a blanket, only to cut it up to fashion socks for the feet of prisoners.

Father Kapaun would risk his life, sneaking into the fields around the prison compound to look for something to eat. He would always bring it back to the communal pot.

Kapaun4Chinese Communist guards would taunt him during daily indoctrination sessions, “Where is your god now?” Before and after these sessions, he would move through the camp, ministering to Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Kapaun would slip in behind every work detail, cleaning latrines while other prisoners argued over who’d get the job. He’d wash the filthy laundry of those made weak and incontinent with dysentery.

Starving, suffering from a blood clot in his leg and a severe eye infection, Father Kapaun defied his communist captors to lead Easter services in April, 1951. He was incapacitated a short time later. Chinese guards carried him off to a “hospital” – a fetid, stinking part of the camp known to prisoners as the “Death House”, from which few ever returned. “If I don’t come back”, he said, “tell my Bishop that I died a happy death.”

Kapaun1In the end, he was too weak to lift the plate that held the meager meal the guards left for him. US Army records report that he died of pneumonia on May 6, 1951, but his fellow prisoners will tell you that he died on May 23, of malnutrition and starvation. He was 35.
Scores of men credit their own survival in that place, to Chaplain Kapaun.

In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Kapaun’s family with the Medal of Honor, posthumous, for his heroism at Unsan. The New York Times reported that April: “The chaplain “calmly walked through withering enemy fire” and hand-to-hand combat to provide medical aid, comforting words or the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church to the wounded, the citation said. When he saw a Chinese soldier about to execute a wounded comrade, Sgt. First Class Herbert A. Miller, he rushed to push the gun away. Mr. Miller, now 88, was at the White House for the ceremony with other veterans, former prisoners of war and members of the Kapaun family”.

Pope John Paul II named Father Kapaun a “Servant of God” in 1993, the first step toward Roman Catholic Sainthood. On November 9, 2015, the Catholic Diocese of Wichita submitted a 1,066 page report on the life of Chaplain Kapaun, to the Roman Curia at the Vatican. A team of six historians reviewed the case for beatification. On June 21, 2016, the committee unanimously approved the petition.

The Medal at Last
In this photo provided by Col. Raymond A. Skeehan, Father Emil Kapaun celebrates Mass using the hood of his jeep as an altar, as his assistant, Patrick J. Schuler, kneels in prayer in Korea on Oct. 7, 1950, less than a month before Kapaun was taken prisoner. Kapaun died in a prisoner of war camp on May 23, 1951, his body wracked by pneumonia and dysentery. (AP Photo/Col. Raymond A. Skeehan via The Wichita Eagle)

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the committee of cardinals which makes recommendations concerning sainthood to the Pope, have taken the position that Kapaun would not be declared a martyr, a step which would have greatly accelerated the Pilsen, Kansas native toward sainthood.  Fellow prisoners and Korean War veterans have argued passionately, (I personally know one of them) that Kapaun was killed by Chinese Army prison guards, for standing up for his faith.  Vatican officials counter that no one actually saw Kapaun die.  Witnesses only saw the Father being carried away and, ever watchful over the credibility of its own sainthood investigations, the matter continues under Church review.

Wichita Bishop Carl Kemme believes that full canonization will not take place until 2020, at the earliest.

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May 21, 1944 That Other Disaster, at Pearl Harbor

Details of the West Loch disaster would remain classified until 1960, explaining why the incident is so little known, today.

Between June and November 1944, forces of the United States Marine Corps and Army conducted Operation Forager with support from the United States Navy, an offensive intended to dislodge Imperial Japanese forces from the Mariana Islands and the island nation of Palau.

Part of the island-hopping strategy employed during the last two years of WW2, Operation Forager followed the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign and had as its objective the neutralization of Japanese bases in the central Pacific, support for the Allied drive to retake the Philippines, and to provide bases for strategic bombing raids against the Japanese home islands.

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A NASA image of Pearl Harbor. The disaster occurred in West Loch which is to the left side of the photo, where the water is lighter in color.

In May 1944, the Pacific naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor was a rush of activity, building up for the planned invasion.  Seventy-four years ago today, twenty-nine Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs) were tied beam-to-beam on six piers, loading munitions, high octane gasoline and other equipment.

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LST in Sicily

LST-353 exploded shortly after three in the afternoon, causing an incendiary chain reaction down the line of LSTs. 200 men were blown into the water in the first few minutes, in explosions powerful enough to knock vehicles on their sides. Eleven buildings on the shore were destroyed altogether and another nine, damaged.

Firefighting efforts were slow to get underway, due to the heat and the inexperience of many of the crew. Some LSTs began to move away under their own power or with the assistance of tugs, others were abandoned and left adrift and burning, before sinking in the channel.

Burning gasoline spread across the water and ignited other ships, left unharmed by the initial explosions. Fires continued to burn for the next twenty-four hours.

Casualty figures are surprisingly inexact. Most sources report 163 personnel killed in the incident and another 396, wounded. Some sources put the number of dead as high as 392.  Eleven tugboats were damaged while engaged in fire control efforts.  Six LSTs were sunk, two already carrying smaller, fully loaded Landing Craft Tanks (LCT) lashed to their decks.  Several others were heavily damaged and/or run aground.

A press blackout was ordered immediately after the incident, and military personnel were ordered not to talk. A Naval Board of Inquiry was opened the following day. The disaster at West Loch was initially believed to be caused by Japanese submarines, but the idea was dismissed due to the shallow depth of the harbor, and the presence of anti-submarine nets.

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The wreckage of the LST 480 following the West Loch Disaster.

The precise cause of the accident remained elusive, as everyone near the initial explosion was killed. Army stevedores were unloading mortar ammunition at the time, using an elevator just fifteen feet from 80 drums of fuel. Some believe that a mortar round was accidentally dropped and exploded, others that fuel vapors were ignited by a cigarette or welder’s torch.

Subsequent salvage and removal efforts on the West Loch brought up the remains of a Japanese midget submarine, now believed to be the fifth such sub used in the attack of two years earlier.

Details of the West Loch disaster would remain classified until 1960, explaining why the incident is so little known, today.

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The last fatality from the disaster at West Loch occurred nine months later, during salvage operations for a sunken LST.

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Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg

On February 17, 1945, two divers were using jet nozzles to tunnel under a sunken LST, when the steel wreckage above them caved in. Buried alive with lifelines and air hoses hopelessly tangled with jagged pieces of steel, the pair was trapped under 40′ of water and another 20′ of mud.  There seemed no chance of survival, when fellow Navy diver Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg went into the water.

Working in the swirling mud and pitch blackness beneath the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the diver worked desperately to wash another tunnel under the sunken LST.  Hammerberg reached the first man after hours of exhausting labor, freeing his lines and enabling the man to reach the surface.

Let Owen Hammerberg’s Medal of Honor citation, the one he would not live to read, tell what happened next.

Cmoh_army“…Venturing still farther under the buried hulk, he held tenaciously to his purpose, reaching a place immediately above the other man just as another cave-in occurred and a heavy piece of steel pinned him crosswise over his shipmate in a position which protected the man beneath from further injury while placing the full brunt of terrific pressure on himself. Although he succumbed in agony 18 hours after he had gone to the aid of his fellow divers, Hammerberg, by his cool judgment, unfaltering professional skill and consistent disregard of all personal danger in the face of tremendous odds, had contributed effectively to the saving of his 2 comrades…”.

Navy diver and Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg was the only service member in WW2 and the last person ever, to receive the Medal of Honor as the result of heroism performed outside of combat.

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May 6, 1951 A Shepherd in Combat Boots

In the end, Father Kapaun was too weak to lift the plate holding the meager ration the guards had left for him. US Army records report that he died of pneumonia on May 6, 1951.  He was 35.

Emil Joseph Kapaun was the son of Czech immigrants, a farm kid who grew up in 1920s Kansas. Graduating from Pilsen High, class of 1930, he spent much of the 30s in theological seminary, becoming an ordained priest of the Roman Catholic faith on June 9, 1940.

download (64)Kapaun served as military chaplain toward the end of WWII, before leaving the army in 1946, and rejoining in 1948.

Father Kapaun was ordered to Korea a month after the North invaded the South, joining the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, out of Fort Bliss.

His unit entered combat at the Pusan perimeter, moving steadily northward through the summer and fall of 1950. Kapaun would minister to the dead and dying, performing baptisms, hearing first confessions, offering Holy Communion and celebrating Mass from an improvised altar set up on the hood of a jeep.

Kapaun once lost his Mass kit to enemy fire. He earned a Bronze Star in September that year, when he ran through intense enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. His was no rear-echelon ministry.

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A single regiment was attacked by the 39th Chinese Corps on November 1, and completely overrun the following day. For the 8th Cav., the battle of Unsan was one of the most devastating defeats of the Korean War. Father Kapaun was ordered to evade, an order he defied. He was performing last rites for a dying soldier, when he was seized by Chinese communist forces.

Prisoners were force marched 87 miles to a Communist POW camp near Pyoktong, in North Korea. Conditions in the camp were gruesome. 1st Lt. Michael Dowe was among the prisoners, it’s through him that we know much of what happened there. Dowe later described Father Kapaun trading his watch for a blanket, only to cut it up to fashion socks for the feet of fellow prisoners.

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Father Kapaun would risk his life, sneaking into the fields around the prison compound to look for something to eat. He would always bring it back to the communal pot.

Chinese Communist guards would taunt him during daily indoctrination sessions, “Where is your god now?” Before and after these sessions, he would move through the camp, ministering to Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Kapaun would slip in behind every work detail, cleaning latrines while other prisoners argued over who’d get the job. He’d wash the filthy laundry of those made weak and incontinent with dysentery.

Screen shot 2012-04-30 at 6.50.19 AMStarving, suffering from a blood clot in his leg and a severe eye infection, Father Kapaun led Easter services in April, 1951. He was incapacitated a short time later. Chinese guards carried him off to a “hospital” – a fetid, stinking part of the camp known to prisoners as the “Death House”, from which few ever returned. “If I don’t come back”, he said, “tell my Bishop that I died a happy death.”

In the end, Father Kapaun was too weak to lift the plate holding the meager ration the guards had left for him. US Army records report that Fr. Kapaun died of pneumonia on May 6, 1951.

His fellow prisoners will tell you that he died on the 23rd, of malnutrition and starvation. He was 35.

Scores of men credit their survival to Chaplain Kapaun. In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Kapaun’s family with the Medal of Honor, posthumous, for his heroism at Unsan. The New York Times reported that April, “The chaplain “calmly walked through withering enemy fire” and hand-to-hand combat to provide medical aid, comforting words or the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church to the wounded, the citation said. When he saw a Chinese soldier about to execute a wounded comrade, Sgt. First Class Herbert A. Miller, he rushed to push the gun away. Mr. Miller, now 88, was at the White House for the ceremony with other veterans, former prisoners of war and members of the Kapaun family”.

Cmoh_armyPope John Paul II named Father Kapaun a “Servant of God” in 1993, the first step toward Roman Catholic Sainthood. On November 9, 2015, the Catholic Diocese of Wichita submitted a 1,066 page report on the life of Chaplain Kapaun, to the Roman Curia at the Vatican. A team of six historians reviewed the case for beatification. On June 21, 2016, the committee unanimously approved the petition. At the time I write this, Father Emil Joseph Kapaun’s supporters continue working to have him declared a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church, for his lifesaving ministrations at Pyoktong.

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