Sandlapper Society

Medal of Honor

Selflessness  & Courage

by W. Thomas Smith Jr.

“A hero is not some celebrity or sports star, though society has allowed the definitions to blur between ‘star’ and ‘hero.’”
— Brig. Gen. Eugene F. Rogers


On May 2, 1968, U.S. Marine Capt. James E. Livingston— commanding Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines— was tasked with assisting nearby Golf Company, which was having trouble in its assault of a heavily-fortified line of inter-connected enemy bunkers along the Cua Viet River, South Vietnam.

As the operation unfolded, Livingston found himself charging with his men— literally leading from the front— across 500 yards of open rice paddy under extremely heavy fire from enemy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Livingston was wounded twice, but kept attacking. His Marines ultimately reached the enemy’s trenchworks and drove them from their positions. Livingston himself killed scores of enemy soldiers. But it wasn’t without cost. Of the more than 180 Marines who had launched the attack, only 35 able-bodied Marines remained.

Then things got worse.

As American helicopters were loading up the dead and wounded, Livingston heard over the radio desperate pleas for help and crackling gunfire. It was nearby Hotel Company, which was being cut to pieces. Livingston pulled together what was left of Echo and rushed to Hotel’s rescue.

The ensuing fighting was savage— even hand-to-hand. Livingston’s personal kills would nearly equal those in the previous fight. He was again wounded and ultimately dragged off the field by two Marines who disobeyed his order to leave him and to keep attacking.
For his actions, Livingston, who today lives in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award for battlefield heroism.

The Medal has been America’s supreme award since legislation was passed during the Civil War authorizing the crafting of “Medals of Honor” for enlisted sailors and Marines who exhibited “gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities.” The Medal quickly evolved to include Army-enlisted men. Today it includes more than 3,400 recipients— both enlisted and officer— from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force. But it cannot be “won” and it is almost impossible to “earn.”

Nearly 150 years since its creation, the Medal of Honor has been (usually) awarded by the President of the United States, in the name of Congress, which is why the Medal is frequently referred to by its unofficial name, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Americans of all races, religions, socio-economic backgrounds and service branches have been awarded the Medal, including one woman, Dr. Mary E. Walker, a Civil War surgeon.

Ironically, as the word heroism in the 21st century has come to define almost anyone whose efforts, although noble, may be less than heroic in the purest sense of the word, the standards for the Medal of Honor have actually stiffened to the point— particularly since World War I— that most recipients in the modern era are killed in the action for which they are awarded. In fact, all recipients since the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu have earned the decoration posthumously. And many whose deeds are perceived to be worthy of the Medal either don’t meet the Medal’s exacting standards or there aren’t any surviving witnesses to recommend the decoration.

Consequently, there are only 91 living recipients as of this writing. The oldest, Navy Lt. John W. Finn of California, is 100. The youngest, Army Col. Gordon Ray Roberts of North Carolina, is 58.

South Carolina lays claim to five of the living, including Livingston (today a retired major general). The other four are Army Col. Charles P. Murray Jr. of Columbia; Navy SEAL Lt. Michael E. Thornton of Greenville, now in Texas; Marine Capt. John James McGinty III, who entered service in South Carolina and lives in California; and Army MSgt. John F. Baker Jr. of Columbia. All have retired from service.

Which brings us to South Carolina being chosen as the site of the national Medal of Honor Society’s annual convention Sept. 29-Oct. 3 in Charleston, an event which— because of its significance to both the Palmetto State and the broader concept of American military tradition— inspired former FOX News and MSNBC program host Rita Cosby to declare “I think it will be the finest hour in America.”

Hosted by the S.C. State Guard Foundation and The Citadel, the convention currently is being organized by a group of Columbians and Charlestonians. Co-chairs are Columbia attorney Eugene F. Rogers, a founder of Rogers Townsend & Thomas law firm, and retired Marine Col. Myron C. Harrington Jr., a Charlestonian, Citadel grad, and recipient of the Navy Cross for his actions during the bloody Battle of Hué, Vietnam.

“It is essential to the moral health and strength of this nation that we increase awareness of who these men are and why they are America’s true heroes,” says Rogers, a brigadier general in the S.C. Military Department’s Joint Services Detachment. “A hero is not some celebrity or sports star, although society has allowed the definitions to blur between ‘star’ and ‘hero.’”

Maj. Gen. Nelson Lacy, president of the South Carolina State Guard Foundation, agrees. “No other state has a military heritage richer than South Carolina’s which makes our state— in many ways— uniquely qualified to host this event.”

Militarily speaking, South Carolina is indeed one of the most tradition-rich states in the union. And a national convention honoring America’s bravest of the brave does seem a perfect fit. But what is it about the Medal of Honor and why do its recipients— living and dead— seem to stand above all others? 

Recipients almost always will say they were simply doing what had to be done in the particular circumstances in which they found themselves. But to receive the Medal, the nominee’s gallantry must be distinguished beyond that warranting a lesser— though also lofty— decoration for valor such as the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross or the Air Force Cross. There must be extreme risk to the nominee’s life. And the performance of the nominee must be so bold, so courageous, so self-sacrificial that the deed is deemed something no one could ever be expected to do in three lifetimes.

There is no equal to the Medal. American presidents have confessed they would rather have received the Medal of Honor than won the White House. U.S. Army Gen. George S. Patton once proclaimed he would sell his “immortal soul” for the Medal of Honor.

The recipients themselves will tell you that the Medal of Honor does not belong to them. They are holding it in trust for their fellow servicemen and women, living and dead, recipients and non-recipients alike.


South Carolina’s Immortals

Since the Civil War, 3,468 Medals of Honor have been awarded to 3,449 recipients (19 men have received the decoration twice). Of those 3,449 recipients, 37 have South Carolina connections. Of our 37 immortals, 11 were awarded the decoration posthumously.

Twenty-nine of the 37 entered service in South Carolina (including two of our five living recipients) and 27 of the 29 were born in the Palmetto State.

An additional five now-deceased recipients were born here, but entered service in other states. And three of our five living recipients were born— and entered service— in other states, but presently reside in South Carolina.

South Carolina’s deceased recipients

Barker, Charles H. (awarded posthumously)

Hall, Thomas Lee (awarded posthumously)

Heriot, James Davidson (awarded posthumously)

Howe, James Donnie (awarded posthumously)

Johnson, Ralph Henry (awarded posthumously)

Knight, Noah Odell (awarded posthumously)

McWhorter, William A. (awarded posthumously)

Owens, Robert Allen (awarded posthumously)

Smith, Furman L. (awarded posthumously)

Stowers, Freddie (awarded posthumously)

Watkins, Lewis George (awarded posthumously)

Anderson, Webster

Atkins, Thomas E. “Gene”

Blake, Robert **

Dozier, James C.

Elliott, Middleton Stuart

Floyd, Edward (birth state unknown)

Foster, Gary Evans

Garlington, Ernest

**

Hilton, Richmond Hobson

Hooper, Joe Ronnie **

Kennedy, John Thomas

Kennemore, Robert Sidney

Mabry Jr., George Lafayette

Moffett, William Adger

Sullivan, Daniel Augustus Joseph

Truesdell, Donald Leroy

Villepigue, John Cantey

Walling, William Henry (born in New York)

Wheeler, George Huber **

Williams, Charles Quincy

Williams, James Elliott

South Carolina’s living recipients

Baker Jr., John F. (born in Iowa, entered service in Illinois, lives in Columbia)

Livingston, James E. (born in Georgia, entered service in Georgia, lives in Mt. Pleasant)

McGinty III, John James (born in Massachusetts, entered service in South Carolina, lives in California)

Murray Jr., Charles P. (born in Maryland, entered service in North Carolina, lives in Columbia)

Thornton, Michael Edwin (born in Greenville, entered service in South Carolina, lives in Texas)

** Denotes deceased recipients of the Medal of Honor who were born in South Carolina, but entered service in other states.

“This very selflessness is ingrained in each and every one of these men,” Rogers observes. “And by enabling those attending grand events such as our national convention— particularly our young people— to be able to recognize and appreciate such selflessness and courage, we are strengthening the future of this state and nation.”

* * *

Former U.S. Marine W. Thomas Smith Jr. of Columbia writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq and Lebanon. The author of six books, his articles appear ina variety of publications. Visit him online at uswriter.com.

National Medal of Honor Day is observed each year on March 25th. Learn more about the upcoming 2010 Medal of Honor Convention at medalofhonorconvention.com.

This article sponsored by Ace Glass.

 

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