Gallantry and Risk Beyond the Call of Duty: The U.S. Medal of Honor

The Medal of Honor is the highest U.S. military decoration for valor. The medal “recognizes individual gallantry at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty.” Since Congress created it in 1861, fewer around 3,500 servicemen out of 45 million who have served during wartime have received it (40 percent of the decorations were awarded to individuals who fought in the Civil War). During World War II, 464 Medals of Honor were awarded, 266 of them posthumously (57.3 percent). Those who receive the MOH join a fraternity of heroes that each branch of the service memorializes. 

Surprisingly, there was a controversy about this medal during its first 60 years of existence. During World War I, it was discovered that individuals had received this award who did not merit it. In 1917, a special review board analyzed 2,625 Medal of Honor recipients, mostly from the Civil War, revoking 911 of them because they failed to meet the statutes. For example, many MOHs during the Civil War were simply given for re-enlistment and not heroic deeds, which blatantly violated the mandates. A few of the rejected Medal of Honor recipients’ cases were re-reviewed later, such as the case of the only female Medal of Honor recipient, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. The award was then re-conferred in four cases, including Dr. Walker posthumously in 1977. 

After a person is awarded the medal, the recipient receives many benefits, one of which is a monthly stipend tax free, currently around $1,400 a month. Also, although not required by military regulations, it is understood that when a Medal of Honor recipient walks in a room, every person in uniform, regardless of rank, renders honors by way of a salute to the person wearing the decoration. 

During World War II, the men who received this award went through a thorough process whereby their award had to be sanctioned from top to bottom, starting at the company level and going all the way to the top brass, such as Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur or Commandant of the Marine Corps Alexander Vandegrift. Only then, when signed off by the respective heads of each service, was it placed in front of the President to be officially awarded. 

From my study of World War II and the Pacific War, I have analyzed 30 out of the 139 Navy and Marine Corps Medals of Honor (37 of the 57 MOH awards for the Navy went to officers, whereas 52 of the 82 for the Marine Corps went to enlisted men) as well as countless others who were put in for the Medal of Honor, but then were downgraded to a Navy Cross. From my records, there were 4.5 million men in the Navy and almost 700,000 in the Corps during this time, so with this in mind, one sees how rare and unique it was to receive the highest decoration for valor our nation can bestow. 

The greatest number of Medals of Honor ever awarded for any engagement in American history took place during the 36-day battle for Iwo Jima (27 were given for this campaign). There was a reason Admiral Nimitz said, “Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Shockingly in reading through the files, I have found countless cases where the person, in my historical opinion, should have received the Medal of Honor from Iwo Jima, but did not because he did not have the necessary endorsements or witness statements for his medal package. Others did not receive the Medal simply because they did not have an officer to put them in for the award. A person can only receive a Medal of Honor when an officer endorses him for the decoration and since most line officers were dead or wounded after only a few weeks on Iwo Jima, most heroic acts by the vast majority of the enlisted men were never witnessed by the officers who could get their packages started. As a result, the 27 men who received the Medal of Honor for actions on Iwo Jima represent only a fraction of those who should have received this medal for their brave acts against the enemy, often acts that resulted in their deaths. 

Shockingly, during my study I found out that there was at least one Medal of Honor recipient, USMC Cpl. Hershel “Woody” Williams, who probably should not have received the medal due to his package never being endorsement by Fleet Marine Force commander Lieutenant Roy S. Geiger and his board, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz and his board, or Marine Corps Commandant, General Alexander Vandegrift. Even more astonishingly, Williams’ own platoon leader, Lt. Howard Chambers, refused to endorse his package for the Medal of Honor although he witnessed much of what Williams did the day that seemed to warrant the Medal of Honor. It seems what bothered all these Marines, Admiral Nimitz and their boards of officers with Williams’ MOH package was that some of the information about his actions seemed to have come from William’s self-reporting, which violates the mandates. It appears his medal was pushed through politically, and not because his package merited it—as 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Charles C. Krulak remarked—he should have never received the Medal of Honor. 

In later posts, I will explain more about Williams’ controversial award. In the meantime, please consider the importance of the integrity of the Medal of Honor and to whom it is bestowed. If this decoration is meant to symbolize America’s highest ideals, don’t we owe the nation and those who have sacrificed what is often their last full measure our fidelity to upholding its standards?

To learn more about the Medal of Honor and the Battle of Iwo Jima, see my new book, “Flamethrower”.

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