• Sat. Sep 23rd, 2023

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The Medal and the War

When Harry S. Truman, a captain in the field artillery during World War I, presented the Medal of Honor for extraordinary bravery in World War II or the Korean War, he commonly told the recipients, “I would rather have this medal than be president.”

More than 3,500 men and one woman, Mary Walker, a War Department civilian surgeon during the Civil War, have received the medal, the nation’s highest award for valor, since it was authorized in 1861.

The World War II recipients include Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, cited for leadership of troops in the ultimately doomed defense of the Philippines early in the war, and Gen. James Doolittle, who led the Doolittle Raiders’ bombing of Tokyo in 1942, vengeance in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

The enlisted men who received the medal for valor on the European front include Cpl. Charles Kelly of Pittsburgh, who was regarded as something of a one-man Army for saving many of his fellow G.I.s by fighting off German attackers during a battle in Italy in 1943.

In the Pacific, Pfc. Desmond Doss, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church who rescued dozens of fellow soldiers in the 1945 battle for Okinawa while an unarmed medic, became the first conscientious objector to receive the medal.

But most of the surviving World II recipients of the medal remained little known until their final years, or their deaths. Such was the case with Hershel Williams of the Marine Corps, the war’s last surviving Medal of Honor recipient and the eldest of all living holders of the medal, who died on Wednesday at 98.

Only one president has received the medal that Truman revered. Theodore Roosevelt, who assumed the presidency in September 1901 upon the assassination of William McKinley, was awarded it in January 2001 for leading his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in 1898 in the Spanish-American War while an Army lieutenant colonel.

His son Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. received the medal for rallying soldiers of the Fourth Infantry Division ashore under fire at Utah Beach in the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944.

General Roosevelt died of a heart attack in Normandy on July 12, 1944, more than a month after the D-Day invasion there. Like his father, he was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously; he received it in September 1944. He would join the more than 400 servicemen from all branches of the World War II armed forces who were decorated for gallantry “above and beyond the call of duty.”