The Medal of Honor in Massachusetts

By Tom Farmer

From the moment the Minutemen fired the Shot Heard Round the World at Concord’s North Bridge in 1775 marking the birthplace of our nation, Massachusetts Patriots have placed themselves in harm’s way in every armed conflict in America’s history to defend the liberty and freedom we enjoy today.

The hallowed foundation for the millions of Bay State sons and daughters who have served our country is the nearly 300 Massachusetts men who were awarded the Medal of Honor – many posthumously.

Massachusetts’ relationship with the Medal of Honor and the sacrifice and valor exhibited by its Recipients is awe inspiring. With the exception of the larger populated New York (666) and Pennsylvania (378), no other state has more Medals of Honor Recipients connected to it than the 297 from Massachusetts either through the medal being officially accredited to the state or the Recipients being born here.

The state is humbled to have two Recipients living here – Navy Captain Thomas J. Hudner, Jr., Ret., and Navy Captain Thomas G. Kelley, Ret., – while Recipient Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts, Ret., of New Hampshire, was born in Lowell and has professional and personal connections to Massachusetts.

Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor after he intentionally crash landed his fighter plane near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea on Dec. 4, 1950, in a valiant but unsuccessful effort to rescue Ens. Jesse L. Brown, a fellow pilot from the USS Leyte who had been shot down and trapped in his mangled Corsair. Brown, the Navy’s first African-American fighter pilot, died of suspected internal injuries before Hudner and a rescue helicopter pilot could free him.

Kelley was seriously wounded and lost his right eye on June 15, 1969, while leading a column of eight armored troop-carrying boats to rescue a trapped Army company on the Ong Muong Canal in Vietnam. Kelley purposely placed his vessel between heavy enemy fire from shore and the rest of the boats under his command when an enemy rocket exploded in his vessel. Despite his grievous head wounds Kelley continued to give orders until the column sailed to safety.

Pitts was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on July 13, 2008, at Wanat Village in Afghanistan in which he nearly single-handedly held off an attack by some 200 insurgents on his observation post despite severe shrapnel wounds to his legs and arms. When a two-man reinforcement team arrived he continued to toss hand grenades at the attackers, gather ammunition for the relief team, and then crawled to a radio position where he provided situation reports to his command post which was then able to provide indirect fire support. Pitts prevented the observation post from being overrun and the capture of his fallen fellow soldiers.   

Beginning in 1847 as a “certificate of merit’’ to be awarded by the president along with an extra $2 a month when a “private soldier distinguishes himself in the service,’’ the certificate of merit evolved into the Medal of Honor in 1861 when President Lincoln signed two Senate bills creating the decoration for members of the Army and Navy.

More than half (148) the Medals of Honor connected to Massachusetts resulted from uncommon heroism and intrepidity during the Civil War.

Among those men was Sgt. William Carney of New Bedford, who as a member of the immortal 54th Massachusetts Regiment became the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor after carrying the Union colors and rallying his comrades through the hellacious July 13, 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, S.C. Afterward he reported that the American flag “never touched the ground’’ despite serious wounds Carney suffered during the attack.

Beginning with the Salem-born Robert Buffum, who was among the nation’s first Medal of Honor Recipients and part of the ill-fated April 1862 Union raid into Georgia resulting in “The Great Locomotive Chase,’’ Massachusetts Recipients fought in virtually every major battle of the Civil War.

The Medal of Honor – the only decoration for military service at the time - was given for everything from heroism on the battlefield to incentives to re-enlist. With more than 700 Civil War veterans applying for the medal and the $10 a month pension that came with it, President McKinley ordered new guidelines for the medal in June 1897 requiring it only be awarded for “gallantry and intrepidity.’’

In the years following the devastation and division caused by the Civil War, 48 Massachusetts men in the Army were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Indian Campaigns of the American West.

One of the more famous recipients was Leonard Wood, a graduate of Harvard Medical School who as an Army Contract Surgeon in 1886 rode and walked 100 miles through hostile territory to deliver dispatches and then took command of an Army detachment in pursuit of Geronimo whose commander had died in hand-to-hand combat with the Apache.

Wood later formed the 1st Volunteer Calvary Regiment with another Harvard graduate, Theodore Roosevelt, and was a brigadier general in overall command of the “Rough Riders’’ during the July 1, 1898 assault on San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War that would earn Roosevelt the Medal of Honor 103 years later after a Congressional review. He is the only President to be awarded the medal. His son, Army Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., also a Harvard graduate, was awarded the Medal of Honor decades earlier for his leadership on Utah Beach during the June 6, 1944 D-Day Invasion of France.

During America’s first hostile excursion in Korea, Boston-born Navy Ordinary Seaman William Troy aboard the USS Colorado was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that left him severely wounded during the capture of Korean forts by Sailors and Marines on June 11, 1871. An American diplomatic expedition to Korea turned violent when U.S. ships were fired upon from the coastal forts. Their subsequent capture after an amphibious assault resulted in three American deaths and the awarding of nine Medals of Honor.

Of the 20 Medals of Honor awarded to Massachusetts men during the Spanish American War 15 were presented to Sailors and Marines for their heroism in the audacious May 11, 1888 assault on Cienfuegos, Cuba by the USS Marblehead and USS Nashville in which major communications cables linking the Spanish garrison in Cuba to its leadership were grappled out of the sea and cut by 16-man teams in launches under heavy enemy fire from shore. In all 52 Sailors and Marines received the medal in one of the few instances in American history where so many men received the medal from a single action on a single day.    

America’s acquisition of the Philippines as a result of its victory over Spain led to years of hostilities with Philippine insurrectionists. Seven Massachusetts men – Anthony J. Carson, Edward H. Gibson, Dr. George W. Matthews, Louis C. Mosher, and Frank O. Walker, all from the Army, and Marines Thomas F. Prendergast and Bruno A. Forsterer – were awarded the Medal of Honor for valor under fire, most for rescuing or protecting wounded comrades.

During the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in which an international force was dispatched to protect their respective countries’ interests in China, 10 Massachusetts men – seven Marines and three from the Navy – were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroics during combat with the anti-imperialist faction branded by the British as the Boxers.

The heroism of Marines John Mapes Adams, Harry Chapman Adriance, William Louis Carr, James Cooney, Martin Hunt, James Burnes and David J. Scannell, and Navy men William Seach, Frank Elmer Smith and Francis T. Ryan, was sparsely described in their medal citations as “being in the presence of the enemy’’ and having distinguished themselves through “meritorious conduct.’’ Only Seach’s citation sheds more light on his actions, noting he and six others repulsed a bayonet attack and a subsequent saber attack by Chinese cavalry. Seach was also cited for forcing his way into a Chinese fort and turning one of its cannons on the enemy.

The April 1914 occupation of Vera Cruz during ongoing hostilities with Mexico resulted in Navy men Edward A. Ginsburne, John Grady, and Herman Osman Tickney, along with Marine Captain Walter N. Hill, being the four Massachusetts men among the record 56 Medal of Honor Recipients who were recognized for valor during a single engagement.    

In 1916, Congress ordered the Army and Navy to establish a panel to review all the Medal of Honor Recipients to validate among other things the monthly pension many received. A year later, 911 Recipients – most from the Civil War - were ruled undeserving. Congress further defined the Medal of Honor for extraordinary service in its act of July 9, 1918, which created a new “Pyramid of Honor’’ with the Medal of Honor being the highest military award for battlefield gallantry followed by the Distinguished Service Crosses for the five military branches, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Silver Star Medal. The Bronze Star Medal was created during World War II to honor recipients for battlefield heroism or meritorious service under battlefield conditions.

Prior to the act of 1918, the Navy awarded 21 Massachusetts Sailors Medals of Honor during peacetime. With the exception of just a few, the peacetime medals were given to men who saved others from drowning. Newburyport-born Army Major General Adolphus W. Greely is believed to be the only person awarded the medal for his “life of splendid service’’ when Congress authorized the award in 1935.

Thus World War I would be the first war in which the Medal of Honor was awarded solely for actions committed during battle and eight men connected to Massachusetts would receive it.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Alexander G. Lyle, a dentist, was honored for aiding a wounded Marine under heavy shellfire. Chief Boatswains Mate John MacKenzie secured a depth charge about the USS Remlik that was set loose during a gale until it could be safety cast overboard, saving the vessel and its crew.

Army Private Michael J. Perkins silenced a machine gun in a German pillbox with a grenade and then armed with his trench knife took 25 prisoners after hand-to-hand fighting. Army Major Charles W. Whittlesey was honored for his leadership while his command was cut off and surrounded for five days.

Army Second Lt. Patrick Regan captured an enemy pill box despite being seriously wounded and Army First Lt. William B. Turner led a furious assault through four heavily armed German trench lines until he was killed during an enemy counterattack.

Marine Corps Second Lt. Ralph Talbot, a pilot, received the Medal of Honor for his combat prowess against German air forces and for making an emergency landing with a failing engine to deliver his wounded observer to a hospital.

Greek-born George Dilboy had already fought in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 when he returned to Somerville where his father had emigrated. After joining the Army and serving in Mexico, Private Dilboy was killed at Belleau Wood in France while singlehandedly charging a German machine gun position. His body was returned to Greece but Turkish troops disinterred and desecrated his remains during the Greco-Turkish War. An outraged President Harding sent the Navy to Turkey to recover the remains and demand an apology. President Coolidge presided over Dilboy’s subsequent funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. President Wilson had previously signed the authorization for Dilboy’s Medal of Honor leaving Dilboy to be honored by three U.S. presidents. Dilboy Stadium in Somerville is named in his honor.

World War II would see 22 Medals of Honor Awarded to men connected to Massachusetts with 13 serving in the Army, seven in the Marine Corps and two in the Navy. Their service touched nearly every campaign of the global conflict and more than half of them never returned home.

Army First Lt. Raymond O. Beaudoin, Marine PFC William Caddy, Army Staff Sgt. Arthur Defranzo, Army First Lt. John R. Fox, Marine First Lt. Robert M. Hanson, Army Private Eldon H. Johnson, Marine Staff Sgt. Joseph R. Julian, Army Sgt. Joseph E. Muller, Army Private Frederick C. Murphy, Army Air Corps Captain Harl Pease Jr., Marine First Lt. John V. Power, Army Private Ernest W. Prussman, Marine Gunnery Sgt. William G. Walsh, and Army Cpl. Edward G. Wilkin were all killed in the action that earned them the Medal of Honor or died in combat before the medal could be awarded.

In addition to Tom Hudner, six other men connected to Massachusetts received the Medal of Honor during the Korean War, all of them posthumously. They are Army Cpl. Gordon M. Craig, Navy Corpsman Richard D. Dewert, Marine PFC Walter C. Monegan Jr., Army Private Joseph R. Ouellette, Army Sgt. Charles W. Turner and Marine Cpl. Joseph Vittori.

During the Vietnam War, 11 men connected to Massachusetts received the Medal of Honor with only Tom Kelley, Army Capt. Robert F. Foley, Marine Second Lt. John J. McGinty III, Army Specialist John Baca, and Army First Sgt. David H. McNerney surviving to receive their medal from the president. McGinty and McNerney are now deceased. Navy Corpsman Wayne M. Caron, Army First Lt. Stephen H. Doane, Army Sgt. Rodney J. Evans, Army Capt. Joseph X. Grant and Navy Seaman David G. Ouellet were all killed in action.

Foley, a Newton native and West Point graduate, made the Army his career and retired as a Lt. General. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Nov. 5, 1966 when he charged an enemy position with a machine gun after his company came under heavy attack. Blown off his feet and wounded by a grenade, he refused medical attention and continued the assault on enemy positions.

Baca, who was born in Providence and grew up in Boston, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Feb. 10, 1970, when he covered a grenade with his helmet and smothered the blast, saving eight men with him.

On Sept. 11, 2001, a devastating attack on our nation began our ongoing War on Terror. Yet another generation of Massachusetts men and women answered the call to selflessly place themselves in danger to protect our freedoms and fight those who would imperil our democracy.

Since that horrifying day in 2001, 16 men have been awarded the Medal of Honor, seven of them posthumously. One of those men, Army First Sgt. Jared C. Monti, gave his life on June 21, 2006, in Nuristan Provence, Afghanistan.

Monti, a native of Raynham, was leading a 16-man patrol to gather intelligence to direct fire upon the enemy when they were attacked by superior force of approximately 50 Taliban fighters. Monti placed his men in a defensive perimeter and engaged the enemy with his rifle and grenades.

When he realized one of his men was lying wounded in the open, Monti twice tried to leave the cover of a rock formation but was forced back by heavy fire. With complete disregard for his own safety, he made a third attempt to reach his soldier through the open terrain and was fatally wounded.