President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Melvin Morris. (Photo by John Napolitano)

'Justice' prevails for 24 Medal of Honor recipients

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama – in his role as commander-in-chief – awarded 24 Medals of Honor to U.S. Army veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Three of the recipients were on hand to receive their medals, while family members represented the remaining 21 who received the highest medal for valor posthumously.

“It was truly an honor to witness the presentation of 24 medals of honor to the three heroic men and the families of the ones that have passed,” said American Legion National Commander Daniel Delllinger who was on hand for the historic ceremony. “As President Obama stated, it took too long to recognize the heroism of these men. But justice has prevailed, and the honor due them has been achieved through the recognition given by our country today.”

The awards came as a result of a review called for by the The National Defense Authorization Act of 2002. This review was for awards from 1941 through the end of Vietnam that had been awarded to veterans of Jewish or Hispanic heritage, with an eye towards finding any that might have been tainted by prejudice. This act was later amended to include African Americans and others when worthy citations for lower awards were discovered.

“This is going to be a long ceremony,” noted the president in his opening remarks of the 100-minute ceremony. “We’re going to read all 24 citations, because every one is a story of bravery that should be told.”

Those stories included that of First Lt. Donald K. Schwab of Hooper, Neb., who after World War II could be seen working as a farmer – and later a postal carrier – in his Midwest town. He was active in his church and community, and enjoyed playing softball and basketball. He passed away in 2005 at the age of 86.

But this idyllic life story belies his incredible heroism of on Sept. 17, 1944. Outside the town of Lure, France, Schwab’s unit came under intense fire from woodline machine gun emplacements. Repulsed with heavy losses twice, Schwab ran from man to man checking casualties. And then, according to the Distinguished Service Cross that was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, Schwab “rallied his decimated force for a third charge on the hostile strong-point, worked his way to within 50 yards of the Germans and ordered his men to ‘hit the dirt.’ While automatic weapons fire blazed around him, he rushed forward alone, firing his carbine at the German foxholes, straight for the key enemy machine pistol nest which had spark-plugged German resistance and caused heavy casualties among his men. Spotlighted through the mist and rain by enemy flares, he reached the German emplacement. Ripping off the shelter-half cover of the hostile firing pit, he clubbed the German gunner on the head with his carbine butt and dragged him back, through a wall of fire, to friendly lines.”

Schwab’s award was one of seven awards from World War II to be upgraded. The families of Pvt. Pedro Cano, Pvt. Joe Gandara, Staff Sgt. Salvadore Lara, Master Sgt. Manuel Mendoza and Sgt. Alfred Nietzel were on hand to receive the medals on behalf of their fallen relative.

Another story was that of Pfc. Leonard Kravitz, who received his Medal of Honor for his actions on March 6-7, 1951.  According to the citation, Kravitz was in the 24th Infantry Division fighting near Yangpyong, Korea, when his unit was attacked.

When the machine-gunner was wounded in the initial phase of action, Kravitz immediately seized the weapon and poured devastating fire into the ranks of the onrushing assailants. The enemy effected and exploited a breach on the left flank, rendering the friendly positions untenable. Upon order to withdraw, Kravitz voluntarily remained to provide protective fire for the retiring elements. Traversing the gun to the left to cover the infiltrating enemy and ignoring the pleadings of his comrades to fall back, he fearlessly maintained his position. Detecting a column of Communist troops moving toward friendly positions, he swept the hostile soldiers with deadly, accurate fire, killing the entire group. His destructive retaliation caused the enemy to concentrate vicious fire on his position and enabled the friendly elements to affect a withdrawal. After the strong point was re-secured, Kravitz' body was found lying beside the gun he had so heroically manned; numerous enemy dead lay in and around his emplacement.

While sadly few had perhaps heard of the heroism of Leonard Kravitz, most have probably heard of his nephew, Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Lenny Kravitz, who was in attendance at the ceremony.

The families of fellow Korean War veterans Cpl. Joe R. Baldonado, Sgt. Victor H. Espinoza, Sgt. 1st Class Eduardo Corral Gomez, Master Sgt. Juan E. Negron, Master Sgt. Mike C. Pena, Pfc. Demensio Rivera, Pvt. Miguel A. Vera and Sgt. Jack Weinstein were presented with the medals in a wooden frame.

“Many of these families … they’ve known these stories of heroism for decades” Obama said. “Still, they were pretty surprised when we called them to break the news about the Medal of Honor. Some of them thought it was a prank. Some of them thought it was a scam. A few of them thought it might be some trick to get their credit card number. When I called Melvin Morris, his first reaction was, ‘Oh, my God, what have I done?’”

The 72-year-old Morris, a Port St. John, Fla., resident, likes to spend his free time reading his Bible, going fishing or talking to his wife of 53 years, Mary. But in 1969, Morris was a 27-year-old staff sergeant with the 5th Special Forces Group in Chi Lang, Republic of Vietnam.

When Morris learned by radio that a fellow team commander had been killed near an enemy bunker, he immediately reorganized his men into an effective assault posture before advancing forward and splitting off with two men to recover the team commander’s body. Observing the maneuver, the hostile force concentrated its fire on Morris’s three-man element and successfully wounded both men accompanying him.

After assisting the two wounded men back to his forces’ lines, Morris charged forward into withering enemy fire with only his men’s suppressive fire as cover. While enemy machine gun emplacements continuously directed strafing fusillades against him, Morris destroyed the positions with hand grenades and continued his assault, ultimately eliminating four bunkers.

It would take almost 45 years, but now Morris’ actions that day have resulted in him receiving his Medal of Honor. He was joined at the ceremony by surviving Vietnam veterans Master Sgt. First Class Jose Rodela, also of the 5th Special Forces Group, and Spec. 4 Santiago J. Erevia of the 101st Airborne. Both Rodela and Erevia, a retired postal worker, live in San Antonio.

The families of Vietnam heroes Sgt. Candelario Garcia, Spec. 4 Leonard L. Alvarado, Staff Sgt. Felix M. Conde-Falcon, Spec. 4 Ardie R. Copas and Spec. 4 Jesus S. Duran received posthumous Medals of Honor.