Above and Beyond: The Medal of Honor
“Conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity [resolute courageousness; dauntlessness; braveness; facing danger or pain without showing fear] at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.”
On January 8, 1945, 24-year-old Technical Sergeant (T/Sgt) Russell Dunham and his unit found themselves pinned down at the bottom of snow-covered Hill 616 near Kayserberg in northeastern France. The Germans were firing both machine gun and heavy artillery at them from above. As platoon leader, T/Sgt Dunham understood it was up to him to deal with the chaos they faced, so he grabbed a dozen hand grenades and magazines for his M1 Carbine and began crawling up—and up—and up. Wrapped around his body was a white mattress cover which he hoped would conceal his location in the snowy terrain. When he reached the first machine gun nest, he jumped up, tossed a grenade, and was hit by a bullet. He fell back several yards, regained his footing, and charged the nest, killing the machine gunner and another enemy soldier. Unfortunately, his Carbine jammed, so he reached for a third German in the nest and threw him down the hill where the enemy soldier was eventually captured by the Americans.
After grabbing another Carbine from a nearby wounded soldier, T/Sgt Dunham moved on to the next machine gun nest which he wiped out with two grenades. Slowly advancing on the third nest under heavy fire, he tossed in several more grenades. On that day, he killed nine German soldiers, wounded seven, and he single-handedly captured two more. Nearly thirty more Germans were taken prisoner as a result of his actions. Credited with saving the lives of 120 U.S. soldiers that cold January day, T/Sgt Dunham was presented with the Medal of Honor at the newly secured Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg, Germany in April 1945. He also received a Purple Heart for his wounds.
T/Sgt Russell Dunham, who hailed from East Carondelet, Illinois (across the Mississippi from St. Louis), was one of 473 men who received the Medal of Honor (MOH) for actions taken during World War II. The MOH (aka the Congressional Medal of Honor) is the highest military decoration given by the United States government to members of the armed forces. It was initially created for the Department of the Navy during the Civil War in 1861. The following year, the Department of the Army established their own MOH, and in 1967, the Department of the Air Force awarded their first Medal of Honor for actions taken during the Vietnam War. Since the first MOH was awarded in 1863, 3,530 medals have been bestowed, 618 of those posthumously.
During my research for today’s blog, I discovered that seven of the 473 men who received the Medal of Honor for actions taken during World War II were from Iowa. (Reminder: my novel takes place in Algona, Iowa—circled in green above.) They were from small towns most of you have never heard of (even those of you from Iowa, probably). I’d like to tell you a little bit about these courageous men.
Arthur Otto Beyer, son of immigrants from Luxembourg, was born in St. Ansgar (population 934 in 1940; 83 miles northeast of Algona) in May 1909. He joined the Army in February 1941 and, after basic training, was transferred to the Enlisted Reserve Corps due to his advanced age—he was 32. By January 1945 he was serving in Company C, 603rd Tank Destroyer Battalion. While his unit was in Belgium, he single-handedly destroyed two German machine gun positions before entering a series of enemy foxholes, killing or capturing several enemy soldiers. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman on August 30, 1945. In May 1963, Arthur and his wife Marian attended a White House reception for Medal of Honor recipients hosted by President John F. Kennedy.
Herschel Floyd “Pete” Briles was born in Colfax (population 2,222 in 1940; 150 miles southeast of Algona) in February 1914, the eighth of nine children. Like Arthur Beyer, he joined the Army in February 1941 and was eventually assigned to Company C of the 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion. In November 1944, his unit was under heavy enemy fire near Scherpenseel, Germany. Sergeant Briles left cover to rescue the wounded crew members of a burning tank destroyer and then extinguished the flames. The following day, he single-handedly forced the surrender of fifty-five German soldiers by pouring machine gun fire into their ranks. Later that same day, he once again pulled wounded crewmen from another burning destroyer and returned to extinguish the flames. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman on August 21, 1945.
Dale Eldon Christensen was born in Gray (population 182 in 1940; 125 miles southwest of Algona) in May 1920. By July 1944, he was a Second Lieutenant in Troop E of the 112th Cavalry Regiment during the Battle of Driniumor River in New Guinea. He single-handedly attacked and silenced a Japanese machine gun position. Three days later, when he and his men were pinned down by enemy fire, he ordered them to remain under cover while he fought on alone. His rifle was struck by enemy fire, but he continued his advance, destroying another machine gun position. He then led his men on a successful attack which resulted in a loss of four enemy mortars and ten enemy machine guns. Many Japanese soldiers were left dead on the field. Second Lieutenant Christensen was killed in action on August 4, 1944 while leading his platoon in an attack on an enemy machine gun position. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on May 10, 1945. He is buried at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.
Darrell Robins Lindsey was born in Jefferson (population 4,088 in 1940; 78 miles south of Algona) in December 1919. After graduating from high school in 1938, he attended Buena Vista College in Storm Lake and Drake University in Des Moines before enlisting as an aviation cadet in January 1942. He received flight training in New Mexico, Florida, and Michigan before his deployment to England in March 1944. In August 1944, Captain Lindsey, by then a veteran of forty-five combat missions, led thirty aircraft on a bombing mission over northern France. Although his B-26 was heavily damaged by enemy flak, he continued leading his group to the targeted Seine River bridge northwest of Paris. Making sure all members of his crew could parachute out, he remained at the controls to stabilized his aircraft. One of the fuel tanks exploded just after the last crewman jumped. The B-26 crashed, and Captain Lindsey’s body was never recovered. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on May 30, 1945.
Ralph George Neppel was born in Willey (population 86 in 1940; 104 miles southwest of Algona) in October 1923. By December 1944, he had attained the rank of Sergeant in Company M, 329th Infantry Regiment, 83rd Infantry Division. Shortly before the onset of the Battle of the Bulge, Sgt. Neppel was leading a machine gun squad near the village of Birgel, Germany, when his squad fell under attack by an enemy tank. The entire squad was wounded in the attack, and Sgt. Neppel was blown ten yards from his gun. One of his legs was severed below the knee and he suffered numerous other wounds, but he managed to drag himself back to his position, remounted his gun, and killed the remaining enemy riflemen. The tank was forced to withdraw. Sgt. Neppel survived his wounds, but his remaining leg was severely damaged and had to be amputated. On August 23, 1945, he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman at the White House.
Francis Junior Pierce was born in Earlville (population 687 in 1940; 196 miles east and a little south of Algona) in 1924. He celebrated his 17th birthday the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, and a week later, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. By January 1944, he was assigned to the 4th Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, California and attached to the 2nd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment where he served as a Fleet Marine Force hospital corpsman (Pharmacist Mate First Class). During the Battle of Iwo Jima in March 1945, he showed exceptional courage during a fierce engagement by rendering first aid and evacuating several wounded marines. At one point unarmed and under heavy fire, he carried one wounded marine on his back to safety and returned to rescue another. The following morning, he led a combat patrol to a sniper nest and, as he stopped to aid a wounded marine, he was seriously wounded. He refused aid and instead directed treatment for the wounded man. Initially, he was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions on March 15, 1945 and the Silver Star Medal for wounds he received the next day. On June 28, 1948, those two medals were upgraded to the Medal of Honor. He attended a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden where he was presented the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman.
John F. Thorson was born in Armstrong (population 937 in 1940; 35 miles northwest of Algona) in May 1920. By October 28, 1944, he was a Private First Class in Company G, 2nd Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division in Leyte province in the Philippines. That day, his platoon was ordered to outflank and neutralize a heavily fortified enemy position. Pvt. Thorson moved ahead of his group and was seriously wounded, falling six yards from an enemy trench. As the members of his platoon approached his position, an enemy soldier tossed a grenade into their midst. Pvt. Thorson shouted a warning, then rolled onto the grenade to smother the explosion. He was killed instantly. On July 19, 1945, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. He is buried in Keokuk National Cemetery in Keokuk, Iowa.
You can find the complete Medal of Honor citations for these men online. It’s worth a look, I think.
In last week’s blog about Nuremberg, I mentioned Herta Oberheuser, a Nazi physician who was the only woman who stood trial in Nuremberg for crimes against humanity. Today I can tell you about the only woman who was awarded a Medal of Honor—Dr. Mary Edwards Walker.
After graduating from Syracuse Medical College in 1855, Dr. Walker went into private practice for a few years. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, she tried to join the Army as a surgeon but was turned away because she was a woman. So, she volunteered for the Union Army, first working in a hospital in Washington, DC before moving to Virginia, lending her expertise at field hospitals throughout the state. In 1863, she moved to Tennessee where she was appointed as a War Department surgeon. It was a paid position, equivalent to a lieutenant or captain.
In April 1864, Dr. Walker was captured by Confederate troops and held as a prisoner of war for four months in Richmond, Virginia. Eventually, she was released in a POW exchange. Not long after her release, she became medical director at a hospital for women prisoners in Louisville, Kentucky.
In November 1865, Dr. Walker left government service and was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson, “an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings” during the war. In 1917, the medal was rescinded. She refused to return it and wore it until she died two years later. The reasons for rescinding Dr. Walker’s MOH are a bit complicated. During the Civil War and until 1897, there were no specific regulations for determining the worthiness of a MOH recipient. Essentially, it could have been earned for any reason. Almost 900 medals were bestowed for non-combat reasons during that time. The U.S. Congress formed Medal of Honor Boards for the Army and the Navy in 1916. The Boards were tasked with determining “undesirable awards” and Dr. Walker’s name was added to a list of 911 ineligible recipients because she was a civilian contract surgeon and not a commissioned officer. (As noted above, she did try to join the Army in 1861.)
But there’s more to the story. Dr. Walker’s MOH was restored in 1977. There is disagreement about who was responsible for restoring it. President Jimmy Carter was credited by some, but others say the action was taken by the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Manpower and Reserve Affairs on the recommendation of the Board for Correction of Military Records. There is evidence that the Board for Correction probably exceeded its authority in recommending the restoration. But, restored it was, and Dr. Mary Edwards Walker remains the only female Medal of Honor recipient to this day.
Is anyone in your family a Medal of Honor recipient (from any conflict)? Please leave a comment below or send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’d really like to know.
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.