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The Bravest of the Brave - 150 Years of the Medal of Honor

The Medal of Honor was established by an Act of Congress in 1862, created for the Civil War, but made a permanent decoration in 1863. It is the highest and most rarely awarded decoration conferred by the United States. The deed for which the Medal of Honor is awarded must have been one of personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual for gallantry and intrepidity above his comrades and must have involved risk of life. Incontestable proof of the performance of the service is exacted, and each recommendation for this award is considered on the standard of extraordinary merit. Presentation of the Medal of Honor is made only by the President of the United States. Almost 3,400 men and one woman have received the award for heroic actions in the nation's battles since that time. They are the bravest of the brave. They not only made a difference, they made history.

Theaters of War:  We RememberTheaters of War: We Remember - compiled and edited by Wendy Lazar, President of Glendale - is a vivid and dramatic document of World War II as seen through the eyes and told from the hearts of those who experienced it. It is a written narrative of events that changed the course of our history, transformed communities and nations, and altered lives forever. Three of the men who were awarded Medals of Honor sent us their stories for inclusion in the book. Here are excerpts from Theaters of War: We Remember and the Medal of Honor citations each received:

Frank Witek
It was the assault on Guam. The 9th Marines stormed ashore at Agana Bay and drove across the beaches toward the hills above. Frank Witek was just one of the running, panting men, weakened by the long inactivity aboard ship. But with the skill of long training and the aggressive determination that marks the men of the Marine Corps, the 9th Marines moved forward. They had taken Asan Point in the face of murderous fire from skillfully hidden, long-prepared defensive positions. Witek and the others had faced, with horrified amazement, the first of many banzai charges. Witek killed about 20 enemy soldiers in that wild melee. But that was still not why the Medal of Honor stands after his name.

It came on the 3rd of August [1944], only a few days after the landing when patches of jungle and open areas of grass made a series of perfect ambush positions for the Japanese and Witek's squad made contact with the main Japanese defense line in a sudden blaze of action. With bullets clipping twigs all around him, he leaped upright in full view of the onrushing enemy. Point blank he fired his big BAR, sweeping the line with a spray of lead. Eight men spun and fell under his blast. The rest, startled by the sheer effrontery of the one-man reception, halted and took cover. He was a solitary figure of defiance.

The call went back for tanks. Three light tanks came crashing and clanking up to join them. Unless the tanks and one platoon could break it up, the Japanese defense line would grow into a wall of fierce resistance. The Marines started forward again. Enemy machine guns sprayed the oncoming iron machines, forcing the foot soldiers down to earth - all but Witek. As though unaware of the bullets snapping all around him, he plunged toward the machine-gun nest. Standing hardly five yards from it, he fired a burst into it, just as its muzzle swung around toward his chest. Eight dead enemy soldiers were in the hole when Witek's gun stopped chattering. Then, through the uproar, Witek's voice was heard: "Come on, you Marines! Let's go!" Those were the last words Frank Witek ever uttered. As the Marines leaped forward in a charge that was to break the Japanese line, Frank Witek fell dead. For this epic heroism, Frank Witek was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.

One main idea emerges from his story: he fought for the team. His own safety was forgotten, while he risked his life for his squad, for his platoon, for his outfit. And his outfit, in the last analysis, was the nation. Perhaps that is the real secret of the Medal of Honor - gallantry that is forgetful of self, that dares death for the nation.

Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. Born: December 1921, Derby, Conn. Accredited to: Illinois. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, 3d Marine Division, during the Battle of Finegayen at Guam, Marianas, on 3 August 1944. When his rifle platoon was halted by heavy surprise fire from well-camouflaged enemy positions, Pfc. Witek daringly remained standing to fire a full magazine from his automatic at point-blank range into a depression housing Japanese troops, killing 8 of the enemy and enabling the greater part of his platoon to take cover. During his platoon's withdrawal for consolidation of lines, he remained to safeguard a severely wounded comrade, courageously returning the enemy's fire until the arrival of stretcher bearers, and then covering the evacuation by sustained fire as he moved backward toward his own lines. With his platoon again pinned down by a hostile machinegun, Pfc. Witek, on his own initiative, moved forward boldly to the reinforcing tanks and infantry, alternately throwing hand grenades and firing as he advanced to within 5 to 10 yards of the enemy position, and destroying the hostile machinegun emplacement and an additional eight Japanese before he himself was struck down by an enemy rifleman. His valiant and inspiring action effectively reduced the enemy's firepower, thereby enabling his platoon to attain its objective, and reflects the highest credit upon Pfc. Witek and the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Hershel Woodrow ("Woody") Williams
When his outfit hit Iwo Jima on February 21, 1945, Woody was still a corporal but had been made acting sergeant of C Company's demolition squad. On the 23rd, word came back to the command post that the tanks had been stopped dead in their tracks in an effort to open a lane for the infantry through a barrier of concrete pillboxes and buried land mines. Corporal Williams was at the command post.

He was told that the six men in his squad were all casualties - one killed and five wounded. The situation was bad. They would be pinned down until those fanatically defended strong points were knocked out. The only way to put them out of action was with a flamethrower. But how? A guy wouldn't stand a chance in a thousand of reaching those pillboxes nearly a mile away with the enemy peppering away at him with machine guns. But Woody decided to take that chance. Somewhere deep in his soul he found the courage that ignored self and sustained him.

With the tanks of his flamethrower strapped firmly to his back, the nozzle grasped in his right hand, and charges of TNT in his left, Woody went forward alone in the face of withering fire from an enemy determined that he would never reach his objectives. But he had a couple of extra weapons that couldn't be seen - luck and courage. Four times during those four hours he returned to the command post to get new flamethrowers and to obtain fresh TNT charges and struggle back to the Japanese line. Woody's heroic accomplishment made possible an advance that materially aided in the final hard-won victory on Iwo Jima that culminated in the planting of the "Stars and Stripes" atop Mount Suribachi.

On October 5, 1945, Woody stood on the White House lawn for his Commander-in-Chief, President Harry S Truman, to place the pale-blue star-spangled ribbon of the Medal of Honor around his neck. He received it for his daring actions, unyielding determination, and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance on Iwo Jima. He was told by the President, "I'd rather have this medal than be President."

Rank and organization: Corporal, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, 21st Marines, 3d Marine Division. Place and date: Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, 23 February 1945. Entered service at: West Virginia. Born: 2 October 1923, Quiet Dell, W. Va. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as demolition sergeant serving with the 21st Marines, 3d Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, 23 February 1945. Quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through the network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines, and black volcanic sands, Corporal Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machinegun fire from the unyielding positions. Covered only by four riflemen, he fought desperately for four hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flamethrowers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another. On one occasion, he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flamethrower through the air vent, killing the occupants and silencing the gun; on another he grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon. His unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance were directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strong points encountered by his regiment and aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective. Corporal Williams' aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion to duty throughout this fiercely contested action sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

Desmond T. Doss
It was time to go up on the escarpment again. Desmond, a conscientious objector, was reading his Bible when Captain Vernon approached him and said, "Doss, would you mind going up on the escarpment today? You are the only medic we have left, and we really need you."

The soldiers actually thought the hardest battle was already fought and that this day was just a mop-up job. The 155 men left in Company B went up the escarpment and right away faced the hell of war. High explosives were heaved into one Japanese position. The resulting explosion was more than they anticipated. Evidently, all the high explosives the men had thrown into the foxhole went off, but also an ammunition dump down below. Then what happened was unexpected. Japanese came from all directions from other foxholes and trenches - probably figured it was now or never. The soldiers were told to retreat, but it ended in panic.

Desmond was up on top with his men - until they all left. But what about the wounded men who were scattered around on the top of the escarpment? He started for the nearest soldier. Desmond dragged him over to the edge of the escarpment and looked around to see what he had to use. There was a litter and the one rope they had used for hauling up supplies. He rolled the wounded soldier onto the litter and tied him on as well as he could. Then he dropped him over the edge as he hung onto the rope. Why the Japanese didn't come over to the part of the escarpment where they were and finish them all off, Desmond didn't know. His only explanation was that God took care of him and his men, and later he would have time to thank God. It took about five hours, but he rescued all of the wounded soldiers.

It was a tired, thankful, blood-soaked soldier who finally came down the Maeda Escarpment that day. The members of Company B who had witnessed this conscientious-objector-soldier medic doing what he did were astonished, and it wasn't long before the rest of the company heard about it, too. How many men had Desmond let down from the escarpment? The top brass said, "We had 155 men go up and only 55 men got down the hill on their own. So you must have saved 100 men." "Couldn't be," said Desmond, modestly. "It couldn't have been more than 50. I wouldn't have had time to save 100 men." So they compromised at 75, and that is the number on Desmond's Congressional Medal of Honor Citation.

Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Army, Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Urasoe Mura, Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, 29 April-21 May 1945. Entered service at: Lynchburg, Va. Birth: Lynchburg, Va. G.O. No.: 97, 1 November 1945. Citation: He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying them one by one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands. On 2 May, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and two days later he treated four men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within eight yards of enemy forces in a cave's mouth, where he dressed his comrades' wounds before making four separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety. On 5 May, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Pfc. Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire. On 21 May, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited five hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Pfc. Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter; and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the litter bearers' return, he was again struck, this time suffering a compound fracture of one arm. With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards over rough terrain to the aid station. Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Pfc. Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.

For more information ...
U.S. Army Center of Military History:

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