Only an elite few receive, as a matter of tradition, a hand salute from the President of the United States: those who can wear the Medal of Honor. It is our nation’s highest military decoration. Of the 40 million men and women who have served in uniform since the Civil War, fewer than 3,500 have earned it. And of that number, only 79 are alive today. Most of the medal’s recipients paid for it with their lives.
The American Legion’s Salute to Heroes Inaugural Ball, a 60-year tradition, provides the newly elected commander-in-chief a personal opportunity to pay tribute to those who embody the ideals of courage, selflessness, sacrifice, responsible citizenship, patriotism, pride in the past and faith in the future. The stated ideals of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society are among the highest values of our nation.
The Salute to Heroes ball started during the height of the Korean War. President Dwight Eisenhower’s lifelong commitment to service guided the words of his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1953. "Patriotism means equipped forces and a prepared citizenry. Moral stamina means more energy and more productivity, on the farm and in the factory. Love of liberty means the guarding of every resource that makes freedom possible – from the sanctity of our families and the wealth of our soil to the genius of our scientists."
That evening, the President and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower attended the first Salute to Heroes Inaugural Ball. Five years later, Eisenhower signed legislation federally chartering the Congressional Medal of Honor Society whose membership would be restricted only to those who have received the nation’s highest award for valor in combat.
Since the first Salute to Heroes Inaugural Ball, newly elected or re-elected presidents have made a tradition of greeting the Medal of Honor recipients and others gathered to pay tribute to them. The event, organized by The American Legion with support from 13 other veterans service organizations, is attended by members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, top-ranking military figures, elected officials, celebrities and members of the U.S. Armed Forces recovering from their wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The 2013 Salute to Heroes Inaugural Ball comes on the 150th anniversary of the first presentation of a Medal of Honor. On March 25, 1863, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton presented the first Medals of Honor to six of the surviving members of Andrews’ Raiders. Several publications have been produced to acknowledge this and other early milestones in Medal of Honor history, including a special newspaper supplement in The Washington Post and a commemorative magazine titled Medal of Honor: 150 Years of Courage and Sacrifice. The Congressional Medal of Honor society also manages a richly detailed website and online archives.
Much has been written, spoken, filmed and broadcast to share the story of the Medal of Honor. Each citation is a narrative of selfless bravery against life-threatening conditions, most of which were faced on the field of military battle.
Take, for instance, the citation of U.S. Army Specialist 4th Class Peter Lemon of Michigan, an assistant machine gunner in the Vietnam War. When his operating base came under heavy enemy attack by a larger enemy force, he fired "until both weapons malfunctioned. He then used hand grenades to fend off the intensified enemy attack launched in his direction. After eliminating all but one of the enemy soldiers in the immediate vicinity, he pursued and disposed of the remaining soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Despite fragment wounds from an exploding grenade, Lemon regained his position, carried a more seriously wounded comrade to an aid station, and, as he returned, was wounded a second time by enemy fire. Disregarding his personal injuries, he moved to his position through a hail of small arms and grenade fire. Lemon immediately realized that the defensive sector was in danger of being overrun by the enemy and unhesitatingly assaulted the enemy soldiers by throwing hand grenades and engaging in hand-to-hand combat. He was wounded yet a third time, but his determined efforts successfully drove the enemy from the position. Securing an operable machine gun, Lemon stood atop an embankment fully exposed to enemy fire, and placed effective fire upon the enemy until he collapsed from his multiple wounds and exhaustion. After regaining consciousness at the aid station, he refused medical evacuation until his more seriously wounded comrades had been evacuated."
There is the story of Army Master Sgt. Gary Gordon, sniper team leader in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Oct. 3, 1993, whose heroics were portrayed in the award-winning movie "Black Hawk Down." Gordon’s citation recounts how he provided fire support from a helicopter "during an assault and at two helicopter crash sites, while subjected to intense automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade fire. When Master Sgt. Gordon learned that ground forces were not immediately available to secure the second crash site, he and another sniper unhesitatingly volunteered to be inserted to protect the four critically wounded personnel, despite being well aware of the growing number of enemy personnel closing in on the site. After his third request to be inserted, Master Sgt. Gordon received permission to perform his volunteer mission. When debris and enemy ground fire at the site caused them to abort the first attempt, Master Sgt. Gordon was inserted 100 meters south of the crash site. Equipped with only his sniper rifle and a pistol, Master Sgt. Gordon and his fellow sniper, while under intense small-arms fire from the enemy, fought their way through a dense maze of shanties and shacks to reach the critically injured crew members. Master Sgt. Gordon immediately pulled the pilot and the other crew members from the aircraft, establishing a perimeter which placed him and his fellow sniper in the most vulnerable position. Master Sgt. Gordon used his long-range rifle and side arm to kill an undetermined number of attackers until he depleted his ammunition. Master Sgt. Gordon then went back to the wreckage, recovering some of the crew’s weapons and ammunition. Despite the fact that he was critically low on ammunition, he provided some of it to the dazed pilot and then radioed for help. Master Sgt. Gordon continued to travel the perimeter, protecting the downed crew. After his team member was fatally wounded and his own rifle ammunition exhausted, Master Sgt. Gordon returned to the wreckage, recovering a rifle with the last five rounds of ammunition and gave it to the pilot with the words, ‘good luck.’ Then, armed only with his pistol, Master Sgt. Gordon continued to fight until he was fatally wounded. His actions saved the pilot’s life."
Many prominent early American Legion members were recipients of the Medal of Honor. One of the Legion’s founders, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., received the medal posthumously for his actions at Utah Beach on June 6, 1944. At the age of 56, he "repeatedly led groups from (Utah Beach), over the seawall and established them inland. His valor, courage, and presence in the very front of the attack and his complete unconcern at being under heavy fire inspired the troops to heights of enthusiasm and self-sacrifice. Although the enemy had the beach under constant direct fire, Brig. Gen. Roosevelt moved from one locality to another, rallying men around him, directed and personally led them against the enemy. Under his seasoned, precise, calm, and unfaltering leadership, assault troops reduced beach strong points and rapidly moved inland with minimum casualties. He thus contributed substantially to the successful establishment of the beachhead in France."
His father, the 26th President of the United States, received the Medal of Honor for leading the charge of San Juan Hill in Cuba in 1898. The Roosevelts and the MacArthurs – Arthur MacArthur, Jr., and Douglas MacArthur – are the only father-son recipients of the medal.
World War I fighter-pilot ace and American Legion leader Eddie Rickenbacker received the Medal of Honor in 1930 for shooting down two enemy planes on the same day in September 1918 during a voluntary mission. He went on to record 26 verified aerial victories during.
William Donovan, father of modern strategic intelligence gathering by the United States and a founder of The American Legion, received his Medal of Honor for leadership as a colonel in World War I. Another prominent Legionnaire, Maj. Gen. Pat Brady used three different helicopters to evacuate 51 seriously wounded soldiers through heavy fog on Jan. 26, 1968, in Vietnam. He later served as chairman of the Citizens Flag Alliance, which seeks a constitutional amendment to protect the U.S. flag from desecration.
More recently, Cpl. Jason Dunham received the Medal of Honor for leaping onto a grenade to save the lives of two other Marines during an ambush by insurgents in Iraq in 2004. Navy SEAL Lt. Michael Murphy received his after he sacrificed his life in Afghanistan in order to communicate his outnumbered team’s location from an open area exposed to heavy fire.
The Medal of Honor was established for the Navy by an act of Congress in late 1861. The Army followed in 1862 with its own Medal of Honor. The first act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln who once said, "Any nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure."
Nicholas B. Kehoe, former president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, wrote in Medal of Honor: 150 Years of Courage and Sacrifice, that the award’s history can be divided into three eras: Civil War to 1918 when standards were not as strict as they would eventually become; 1918 to 1963 when criteria were made more rigid but did not necessarily require wartime action (aviator Charles Lindbergh, for instance, received it for his famous New York-to-Paris flight in 1927); and the period following 1963 after Congress passed an act to require combat action of all future Medals of Honor.
The first Medal of Honor was awarded to Union Army Pvt. Jacob Parrott who, along with others known as Andrews’ Raiders, penetrated some 200 miles south into Confederate territory to commandeer a locomotive in an effort to cut off the critical route between Chattanooga and Atlanta. Ireland-born Army Assistant Surgeon Bernard J.D. Irwin performed acts of bravery Feb. 13-14, 1861, at Apache Pass, Ariz., when he assumed command of 14 men and fought his way through Chiricahua Apaches under Cochise and survived a 100-mile march to rescue a group of 60 soldiers who were surrounded and trapped. Irwin was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1894, but his was the earliest action for which the citation was earned.
The Civil War produced 1,522 Medals of Honor, most among conflicts indexed on the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website. The only woman to receive a Medal of Honor, a contracted assistant surgeon named
Mary E. Walker, spent four months as a prisoner and nearly all of the Civil War tirelessly caring for sick and wounded soldiers and sailors. Her Medal of Honor, which had been awarded by President Andrew Johnson, was revoked in 1917 after a review panel determined her service did not meet necessary conditions. President Jimmy Carter restored her medal on June 10, 1977.
Among the 467 Medals of Honor awarded for actions during World War II, 11 recipients are alive today.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who passed away on Dec. 17, 2012, personally attacked and destroyed a machine-gun nest near Terenzo on April 21, 1945, after he had been shot in the stomach. Ignoring his wound, he rallied his men to take out a second nest. On the squad’s third attack, a German soldier fired a rifle grenade that nearly severed Inouye’s right arm. The severed hand was clenching a grenade. Inouye ordered his men to stay back, fearing the grenade would go off when the right-hand fingers relaxed. He dislodged the grenade himself with his left hand and threw it at the enemy position. He finished off the enemy with a submachine gun before he collapsed. His right arm was amputated at at field hospital without adequate anesthesia.
The only U.S. Coast Guardsman to receive the Medal of Honor was Signalman First Class Douglas Albert Munro, who led a daring evacuation operation of Marines trapped by enemy forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, on Sept. 27, 1942. His citation describes the decision he was forced to make in order to complete his mission.
"As he closed the beach, he signaled the others to land, and then in order to draw the enemy’s fire and protect the heavily loaded boats, he valiantly placed his craft with its two small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese. When the perilous task of evacuation was nearly completed, Munro was instantly killed by enemy fire, but his crew, two of whom were wounded, carried on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. He gallantly gave his life for his country."
The Korean War generated 136 Medal of Honor recipients, including 11 who are alive today, like Rudolfo Hernandez of California, an Army corporal who held off onrushing enemy forces while those in his unit withdrew due to lack of ammunition. Armed only with a rifle and a bayonet, he killed six enemy assailants despite suffering grenade, bayonet and bullet wounds of his own. "The indomitable fighting spirit, outstanding courage, and tenacious devotion to duty clearly demonstrated by Cpl. Hernandez reflect the highest credit upon himself, the infantry, and the U.S. Army," his citation reads.
From the Civil War to the War on Terrorism, the Medal of Honor has indexed a rare breed of Americans. The term "hero" is applied loosely in American society. Sports figures, business leaders, even movie stars can be so labeled. Living recipients of the Medal of Honor may seem to have earned the right, and yet they really don’t acknowledge it.
More often, they share a belief that the term "hero" belongs to those who did not come home. They share the feelings of Salvatore Giunta, first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War, who reflects the voices of all who have earned it before him when he says "the ones who truly deserve it most are those Americans who gave their lives for this country."