The Medal of Honor – Book Review
On December 21, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law Public Resolution 82, authorizing the Secretary of the Navy “to cause two hundred ‘medals of honor’ to be prepared, with suitable emblematic devices, which shall be bestowed upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and marines as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities during the present war … .” Thus began the evolution of what would become the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a member of any branch of the Unites States’ military.
The story of how the Medal of Honor came to be, and how it was designed comprise most of the introductory section, “A Badge for Valor,” of The Medal of Honor: A History of Service Above and Beyond. This 2014 edition updates the one published in 1985, to add those awarded the medal for military actions since the original publication and also to include those from earlier wars whose cases were reviewed, resulting in the awarding (or restoration) of the medal for their actions.
The book is lavishly produced. Over nine inches high and nearly eleven inches wide, its glossy pages allow for large illustrations and make it a suitable choice for a coffee-table book. The seven chapters are each given over to a single major war, such as the Civil War or the world wars, or to groups of smaller conflicts such as “The Indian Campaigns” or “The Cold War.” A two-page spread is devoted to “The Medal in Peacetime,” and includes mention of some of those such as a watertender named John King who was twice awarded the Medal of Honor for acts of heroism during boiler explosions in peacetime—the first time in 1901 aboard USS Vicksburg and again in 1909 on USS Salem. An appendix lists the name, rank and place of action for all who had received the Medal of Honor as of the book’s press time, June 2014.
Each chapter or subchapter provides background on the conflict it covers and zooms in for closeups of the actions of some of the individuals who received the Medal of Honor in that war. The Civil War chapter’s pages on the Battle of Gettysburg, for example, include the story of men from the 6th Pennsylvania Infantry who responded to their colonel’s request for volunteers to clear Confederate sharpshooters from a cabin near Devil’s Den.
Six men volunteered, among them Sgts. John Hart and George Mears and Cpls. James L. Roush and Chester Furman. They tried at first to approach the house by stealth but were soon discovered. That left them no choice but to jump up and rush it, all the while under a deadly fire from the Rebels inside. Miraculously they all reached the house unhurt, battered in the door with their rifle butts, and leaped inside screaming for the sharpshooters to surrender. With no choice but to give up or die, the Confederates capitulated, and the two sergeants and two corporals would earn the medal for their valor. (Why medals did not go to the other two is unknown, though very probably they did not survive the battle. It was not the custom of the time to bestow the Medal of Honor posthumously.)
The following excerpt from the chapter on the Cold War tells of Chief Warrant Officer Michael Novosel, who had served in WWII and was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve when he asked for leave from his job as a commercial airline pilot so he could return to active duty in Vietnam. Told that “the Air Force already had enough officers and that he was too old at forty-two, Novosel enlisted in the Army as a warrant officer, a substantial reduction in rank.” During a year of service in Vietnam he flew medical evacuation helicopters, “ferrying more than two thousand soldiers and civilians from the battlefield to local hospitals.” Diagnosed with glaucoma, he couldn’t return to commercial pilot duties, so he re-enlisted in the Army and was allowed to keep flying as long as he took medication four times a day. On October 2, 1969, he and his three-man crew had been flying dustoff missions for seven hours when a call came in at 4:00 p.m. to evacuate ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) wounded from the Plain of Reeds.
He was about to head back with his third load when he saw a wounded soldier lying in front of an enemy bunker. Novosel turned his craft around, warned his men to stay down, and gingerly backed toward the bunker. This tactic would allow for a quick getaway and also put the tail between the passengers and enemy bullets. The chopper reached the man, and the crew chief grabbed him to pull him aboard.
At that moment, an enemy soldier jumped up from the grass in front of the Huey and fired directly at Novosel. An AK-47 round shattered the Plexiglas windshield, sending fragments into his leg and hand. Novosel momentarily lost control of the aircraft, then regained it. The wounded soldier slipped from the crew chief’s grasp but held onto the skid of the aircraft as it gained altitude. He was pulled into the helicopter sixty feet off the ground. With another load of wounded, Dustoff 88 headed back to Moc Hoa. In all, Novosel had carried twenty-nine men out of the Plain of Reeds.
Such extraordinary stories are found throughout The Medal of Honor, for this is, after all, a book about men who went to extraordinary lengths to carry out their duties and save lives. I once heard a Medal of Honor recipient say in an interview, “You don’t get the Medal of Honor for killing the enemy. You get it for saving lives.”
Only one woman has been awarded the medal thus far. Mary Walker was a doctor treating wounded Union soldiers (and captured Confederates) during the Civil War. She was taken prisoner by Confederates on April 10, 1864, and held until she was exchanged on August 12. During a 1916 review of all Medal of Honor recipients, Dr. Walker was among over 900 whose medal was revoked. New standards prohibited awarding the medal to civilians and, as a woman, she had been unable to enlist in the Army. Famed scout “Buffalo Bill” Cody, among others, lost his Medal of Honor for the same reason. Medal of Honor notes that Dr. Walker’s medal was restored in 1971, which led to reviews of others whose Medal of Honor had been rescinded and some, like Cody’s, were restored.
The story of Dr. Mary Walker is one of several one- or two-page “sidebars” in the book that provide information on, say, the Indian Scouts or the individual whose actions in WWII were part of the basis for the 1955 Code of Conduct to guide American prisoners of war.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about the Medal of Honor and some of its recipients, or to anyone who enjoys reading stories of individual feats of exceptional heroism during military service. (Most Medal of Honor recipients will tell you that what they did wasn’t any more exceptional than the efforts and sacrifices of others with whom they served; regardless, since the early 20th century the military and Congress only award this medal after careful review, including the testimony of eyewitnesses, in order to keep it a very special honor bestowed upon very few.)
With lavish production values, sharp writing and plethora of illustrations, the only thing this book can be faulted for is not telling more of the stories of these American heroes, but doing justice to them all would require a tome with thousands of pages, which would price it beyond what most readers could afford. At $40, The Medal of Honor: A History of Service Above and Beyond, is a great value. With Christmas shopping season just around the corner, I strongly suspect Santa will be gift-wrapping a lot of copies of this book for history buffs—and deservedly so.