Call of Duty
Ordinary soldiers in extraordinary situations--five Medal of Honor recipients from Virginia share their stories of bravery in war.
The Medal of Honor, the highest award anyone serving in the U.S. armed services can earn for valor in action against an enemy force, is an honor unfamiliar to a surprising number of people.
Since Congress authorized the award during the Civil War, 3445 men and one woman ( Mary Walker, a Civil War doctor) have received the Medal of Honor. Only 88 recipients survive, and that number is dwindling fast as we lose our World War II and Korean War veterans.
Five of the surviving Medal of Honor recipients live in Virginia, including retired Col. Wesley Fox, USMC from Blacksburg, who enjoys noting that he is the only native Virginian.
The men who wear the medals are a diverse group. As retired Colonel H. C. Barnum, Jr. USMC of Reston puts it, "We're a cross section [of soldiers] who were in the wrong place at the right time."
The most recent Medal of Honorand the first awarded to a living service member for action in any war since Vietnamwent to Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta. The Iowa native accepted the award from President Barack Obama on Nov. 16, 2010 at the White House.
In 2007, Giunta and his company were ambushed in Afghanistans Korengal Valley. He was shot twice but, protected by his body armor, able, with several squad mates, to reach one of their wounded. Giunta then dashed ahead, through a rain of bullets, to rescue another squad mate from two insurgents who were carrying the wounded man away. He dragged the man to cover and tended to him for half an hour, but the wounded soldier, who was Giunta's close friend, later died.
Giunta's medal citation and those of the other recipients read like old John Wayne movie scripts, but they're all fact, not fiction.
The Medal of Honor is not awarded lightly. According to Carol Cepregi of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in Charleston, S.C., each of the armed services has set criteria intended to eliminate any margin for error or doubt. The actions of the potential honoree must: be verified by incontestable evidence of at least two eyewitnesses, demonstrate gallantry above the of call of duty, involve the risk of the candidates life, and qualify as a deed that if left undone could not be justifiably criticized.
Photographer John Sheally and I recently met each of the five Virginia recipients. They shared their stories proudly, but modestly, each one claiming they did what needed to be done and that the real heroes were the ones who didn't make it back from battle. Here, we share some of their poignant recollections.
"When I told the pilot to drop us, my Marines thought I was crazy," Howard Lee recalls as we talk in his peaceful sunroom in Virginia Beach.
Lee reflects back 44 years to the Vietnamese jungles when he, then 33 and a Marine infantry captain from the Bronx, N.Y., flew by helicopter with six of his Marines to reinforce one of his platoons, trapped under fire on a hilltop deep in enemy territory. The site was too hot with Viet Cong for the pilot to land, but he flew low enough for Lee and his men to leap out in a rain of enemy fire. They worked their way up the hill to the dozen or so beleaguered Marines already on the ground.
Lee, wounded as he jumped, moved from man to man under fire, directing and encouraging the outnumbered Marines for hours.
"Then I hear a loud pssst sound on the ground near me and look over to see an old World War II potato masher (grenade) two feet from me," he says. "I only had time to say 'Oh expletive!' when it exploded." Shrapnel tore through his leg, and more lodged in the other leg and hip but, miraculously, nothing hit an artery. "I was hurting but still functioning," he says.
A Viet Cong mortar downed a helicopter bringing in more ammunition, and the enemy ramped up its attack. In answer to Lee's calls for air support, a Vulcan C-130, the gunship known as Puff the Magic Dragon, arrived with full, precise firepower and convinced the Vietnamese to give up on taking the hill.
By then, five of his troops were dead and the others all wounded. Unable to move his legs or arm, Lee was MedEvaced out with his men.
"If my Marines didn't hang in there we would have been overrun," he says. Lee says he's normally calm in action. "I settle down, knowing I have a lot to do and I'm doing OK."
But his composure was tested during the White House ceremony a year later when President Lyndon B. Johnson presented him with the Medal of Honor. "That was scarier than combat," he says. While his friends and family, including his wife, who was six months pregnant, and their three children, were bussed to the White House ceremony, Lee had to meet the Commandant of the Marines and drove the family station wagon to Marine Barracks in D.C. wondering what he'd do if he had a flat and arrived late or missed the ceremony. But he arrived on time to stand through Johnson's 20-minute speech as Lee's 3-year old, Michael, played on the floor at his father's feet. "Michael is a Marine Colonel now, but back then they called him the White House imp," Lee says. "I was a nervous wreck--so glad when it was all over."
Lee retired from the Marine Corps in 1975 and from the City of Virginia Beach in 1996. "I am so honored by the Medal," he says. "And it puts an obligation on me to not do anything to dishonor it."
He's never polished his medal.
"The Medal of Honor goes to ordinary people who step into extraordinary situations. Something had to be done, and I did what I was supposed to do," he says. "It would be inappropriate to polish the medal--it's just like it was 43 years ago."
Van Barfoot, 91, doesn't back down from a fight.
In December 2009, his condo association said he couldnt fly an American flag from a staff in his front yard. But Barfoot continued to put up his flag every morning, and his determination generated widespread support including news stories and 60,000 hits on Facebook. In July 2010, the General Assembly passed a law prohibiting homeowner or condo associations from similar restrictions.
No one who knows Barfoot's story was surprised.
One of 10 children from a Mississippi farm family, he's part Choctaw Indian. With World War II looming, he enlisted in the Army at 19, after 18 months in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He did three weeks of basic training without a uniform until one could be tailored to his lanky, almost 6-foot- 4-inch height.
"With that new uniform I was the best looking soldier in the crowd," he says. "Five years later, he was among the troops landing at Salerno, Italy." Barfoot remembers, "We didn't expect to run into something as big as it was."
Weeks after his unit was almost annihilated at Venafro, it moved on to Anzio to set up a defensive position. He earned the nickname Minefield Warrior from scouting the territory between the Allied and German lines at night. Not difficult for a country boy to case out mines in two to three months, he says. On May 23, while his platoon was assaulting some well-entrenched German forces, Barfoot moved off alone toward a series of machine guns firing on his men. He crawled near the first one and scored a direct hit with a hand grenade. Toting his tommy gun, he moved on to the next machine gun nest and the next, where the Germans saw him coming and surrendered. He singlehandedly captured 17 prisoners.
"I'm sure the German soldiers were surprised to see an American standing behind them with a tommy gun," he says. Hours after his platoon established itself on the newly won ground, the Germans mounted a direct tank attack. Barfoot grabbed a bazooka, stood just 75 yards in front of the lead tank, fired and disabled the tank, killing the occupants. The other two tanks diverted.
Then he found and disabled a recently abandoned German field piece with a demolition charge to the breech. On his way back to his platoon's position, Barfoot stopped to pick up two wounded comrades and carried them 1700 yards to safety.
"I had a job to do and knew what the result would be if I didnt," he says.
Today one wall in his den holds a photo mural of him, a slender 25-year-old Tech Sgt. in an Army camp in France, being awarded the Medal of Honor by Gen. Alexander Patch for his actions in Anzio.
"Unbelievable," Barfoot says, still tearing up as he talks about it.
"He never told me about the medal until I was 12," says his daughter Margaret Nichols. "He wanted be sure my three older brothers and I were old enough to understand the necessity of killing."
Barfoot went on to serve in Germany and Alaska and for 18 months was deputy aviation director in Vietnam. He retired in 1974 to build a cattle farm in Amelia and continued to work with veterans groups. The Sitter & Barfoot Veterans Care Center, a state nursing home for military retirees in Richmond, is named for him. Although he's deeply honored by the medal, Barfoot never felt any extra obligation.
"No one has ever directed my life since I left the military and no one ever will," he said. "I have no heroes in the military--any American who lives the life hes supposed to as an American citizen or soldier is a hero."
****For the rest of this article, see the March/April 2011 issue of Hampton Roads Magazine.****