Saturday, September 22, 2007


The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest award given by Congress to a member of the Armed Services for valor in combat. Congress established the award in 1862, during the Civil War to honor those servicemen (and woman) who, while serving in the Armed Forces, distinguish themselves conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of their lives above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against any enemy of the United States.

The deed performed must have been one of personal bravery or self sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his comrades and must have involved risk of life.

Approximately 3400 Medals of Honor have been issued in total (including 1,527 during the Civil War when it was the only medal available), and many were issued posthumously because the recipients were killed in action.

Among the well known recipients are Billy Mitchell (who in the 1930's campaigned for a strong air force, and the Milwaukee airport was named for him); Charles Lindbergh (for his 1927 flight although he was not in combat--the award was given in the euphoria of the moment); William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody (in 1872 for his service in 16 battles in the Indian Wars); Sgt. Alvin York (a movie was made about his World War I exploits); Eddie Rickenbacker (who shot down 26 enemy planes in World War I, which, incidentally, wasn't called that at the time); Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D. Hawaii); and President Theodore Roosevelt (awarded in 2001, for his 1898 exploits at San Juan Hill in Cuba).

Some Medals of Honor were awarded for deeds in obscure wars or military actions, such as the 1871 Korean Campaign; the Philippine Insurrection of the early 1900's; the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 in China; Haiti in 1915, and again in 1919-20; but most were earned in the major wars.

Only one woman has won the Medal of Honor. Dr. Mary Walker, a Civil War surgeon, won the award for her extraordinary care for the sick and wounded at Chickamauga (Tennessee) and the Battle of Atlanta (Georgia). Woman doctors were not accepted by the male troops, or society in general, and she often dressed as a man. She was captured and held in a Confederate prison for 4 months in 1864, and underwent severe hardships. In 1916, Congress decided to revoke many Medals of Honor because of the perception that they were getting too easy to obtain. Dr. Walker refused to return hers, but she was later awarded it again, posthumously.\

Nineteen men were awarded two Medals of Honor. The first was Lt. Thomas Custer, who, with his more famous brother, Gen. George A. Custer, met his fate at Little Big Horn in Montana in 1876. Lt. Custer won both Medals in the Civil War, where, seriously wounded, was personally escorted out of the battle to the aid station by his brother.

In two well known cases, both father and son won the Medal of Honor. General Arthur MacArthur and later his son, General Douglas MacArthur were awarded the medal. World War II General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. received the honor, and later, posthumously, his father, President Theodore Roosevelt received the award (see above).

The Medal of Honor is so prestigious that President Truman once said he would rather have earned the medal than be the Commander in Chief. President Bush said, "When you meet a veteran who wears that medal, remember the moment, because you are looking at one of the bravest ever to wear our country's uniform."

At this time, there are 123 living Medal of Honor Recipients, the lowest number in history.

While all of the medal winners have significant stories to relate, I'd like to share a couple with you. Several Medals of Honor were awarded years after the recipient's action when the heroic events were brought to light by the serviceman's family, buddies or other interested parties. Captain Benjamin Lewis Salomon was an example.


Capt. Salomon, a dentist and surgeon in World War II, was killed in action during the Battle of Saipan in 1944. He was recently awarded the Medal of Honor by President Bush, over 60 years later. Capt. Salomon had no living relatives to witness the presentation. Apparently, he had been originally denied the honor, based on a technicality--that medical personnel were deemed exempt from combat thus rendering Capt. Salomon ineligible for battle honors.

His cause was taken up by Dr. Robert West of Calabasas, California, who was a classmate of Capt. Salomon at the University of Southern California (Class of 1937), and a fellow World War II veteran. The two men had never met. Dr. West learned of Capt. Salomon's heroics while doing research for California's centennial celebration. He did years of research, collecting documents and dealing with the bureaucracy at the Pentagon until he persuaded Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials to agree that the military had made an error in denying the award. West said, "They only knew that he had been killed in action...he didn't even get a Purple Heart."

On July 7, 1944, Capt. Salomon was serving in the Marianas Islands in the 27th Infantry Division when his battalion came under ferocious attack by thousands of Japanese soldiers. The Americans sustained massive casualties, and the enemy soldiers were soon descending on Capt. Salomon's aid station. The two machine gunners assigned to defend the aid station were killed, but Capt. Salomon was determined to defend the wounded men in his care. As the enemy approached his position, he ordered comrades to evacuate the tent and carry away the wounded men, shouting, "I'll hold them off until you get them to safety. See you later." Capt. Salomon's patients and medics all made it to safety. He did not.

In the moments that followed, Capt. Salomon single-handedly killed 98 enemy soldiers until he was overcome by the enemy. As best as the Army could determine, he was shot 24 times before he fell and more than 50 times after that. His body was found at his post the next day, with his finger still on the trigger. While it is not my intention to glorify killing, please keep in mind that in the heat of combat, it's either them or us, and we sure as heck don't want it to be us. Salomon's bravery saved the lives of many of his comrades.

A replica of the medal was enshrined at the USC Dental School.


The other, a local hero, was Master Gunnery Sgt. Richard E. Bush, of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, who died in 2004 at his long time home in Waukegan, Illinois, at the age of 79. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman in 1945 for his actions at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a squad leader during the final assault against Mt. Yaetake on Okinawa on April 16, 1945.

Under heavy enemy artillery fire, Cpl. Bush led his squad up the face of the rocky precipice and over the ridge and drove the defending enemy troops out from their deeply entrenched position. With his unit, he bacame the first to break through to the inner defense of Mt. Yaetake. He was seriously wounded and evacuated with other Marines to shelter under protecting rocks. While lying prostrate, an enemy grenade was thrown into the midst of his group of men. Despite the certain peril to his own life, Cpl. Bush unhesitatingly pulled the deadly missile to himself and absorbed the violent force of the explosion to his own body. In so doing, he saved the lives of his buddies. The grenade tore several fingers off one hand and cost Bush the sight in one eye. But he miracuously survived and became a longtime employee of the Veterans Administration.

Presiden Truman said "By his valiant leadership and aggressive tactics in the face of savage opposition, Cpl. Bush was a major factor in the success of the sustained drive toward the conquest of this heavily defended outpost of the Japanese Empire. His concern for the welfare of his men, spirit of self sacrifice and devotion to duty through this conflict enhance and sustain the proud traditions of the U.S. Naval Service."

Today, on the South side of Waukegan, in a rough part of town, you'll find a street called Richard Bush Court. Most people pass by there every day without a clue to the story behind the name. This man was one of the bravest of the brave.




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