Archive for March 28, 2011
Bravest of the Brave
At the ceremony, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hailed the medal recipients as “the bravest of the brave.”
Since President Abraham Lincoln signed the 1861 law creating the Medal of Honor, 3,543 men and one woman have been awarded the five-pointed star-shaped medal. The most recent was Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade for heroism in Afghanistan.
Awarding of the medal, originally presented only to enlisted men – soldiers and sailors, not officers – until 1863, has been controversial through the years. During the Civil War, hundreds of soldiers from a Maine regiment were offered the medal if they stayed past the expiration of their enlistment just before the Battle of Gettysburg. Some soldiers and sailors received two medals – one from each service – for the same act of bravery. Numerous Civil War veterans petitioned their congressmen to receive the medal long after the war.
To clear up the mess, a board of retired generals reviewed all the medal citations up until that time. In 1917, they recommended that 911 of them be revoked including six given to civilians. They included five Army scouts during the late 19th century Indian Wars – among them William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody – and Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a Civil War battlefield surgeon and the only woman presented the Medal of Honor. All six civilians had their medals restored in the 20th Century.
Now according to U.S. law, the Medal of Honor is bestowed by the president in the name of Congress on members of U.S. Armed Forces who distinguish themselves through “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.”
Racism played a role in the denial of the medal to African-American and Asian-American servicemen during World War II. That, too, was remedied in the 1990s when seven black soldiers and 21 Asians who received the Distinguished Service Cross – the nation’s second-highest award for valor – in World War II had their decoration upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Among them was Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who lost an arm in Italy while serving with the vaunted 442nd Combat Team – which was made up of Japanese-Americans from Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States. Many had come from internment camps where their families were relocated during the war. A 22nd Asian-American who received the Silver Star medal in World War II was added to the medal of honor winners. Only one Japanese-American was presented with the Medal of Honor in wartime.
The first Medal of Honor winner to be decorated was Pvt. Jacob Parrott of the 33rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He was one of the Andrews Raiders, Union soldiers who slipped into the South in civilian dress in 1862, hijacked a locomotive and drove it north to Tennessee, cutting telegraph wires and trying to damage rails and burn bridges along the way.
The raid failed in its main objective and all the raiders were captured. Eight were hanged by the Confederates as Union spies, including their leader James Andrews. Eight others escaped and the remaining six were traded in prisoner exchange. In all, 19 were awarded the first Medals of Honor, including Parrott.
Andrews and William Campbell, who was also hanged, were ruled ineligible for the medal because they were civilians.
The episode has been recreated in two movies. The first was The General, a celebrated silent film directed by and starring Buster Keaton. The second, Walt Disney’s The Great Locomotive Chase, starring Fess Parker – TV’s Davy Crockett – as Andrews.