The Medal of Honor is our nation’s highest award for valor. Paying tribute to bravery above and beyond the call of duty, it was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War in 1862, and now exists in Army, Navy, and Air Force versions. 3,508 individuals have received the Medal of Honor, with 126 of those being awarded for service during World War I, and 472 for service during World War II—more than any other war. The story of each one of these recipients is unique. What they all hold in common is their capacity to amaze and inspire.
In our new Medal of Honor Tour, we will walk in the footsteps of some of the most outstanding men to see combat in western Europe during the two world wars. We will learn the intimate stories of their lives: where they came from, why they chose to serve, and what shaped their personalities. We will stand at the sites of their valorous deeds, experiencing with them the extremes of combat, and learning how and why each of them chose voluntarily to rise far above and beyond the call of duty.
Edward G. Lengel, Ph.D., the Chief Historian at the National Medal of Honor Museum and the historian for our Medal of Honor Tour, shares the stories of some of the Medal of Honor recipients who you will learn about on this tour.
Stories of Our Nation’s Medal of Honor Recipients
By Edward G. Lengel, Ph.D.
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
It’s not easy being the son of a president—especially when that president is Theodore Roosevelt. His son and namesake Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., nevertheless succeeded in living up to his father’s illustrious legacy. Born in 1887, he experienced intense combat as a field officer with the 1st Division in France during World War I.
In World War II, now-Brigadier General Roosevelt was serving as a deputy division commander of the 4th Division when it landed at Utah Beach on D-Day. Suffering from a serious heart condition, he nevertheless demanded and received permission to land with the first wave of the forces assaulting the enemy-held beaches. Famously telling his men to “start the war from right here,” he repeatedly led groups from the beach, over the seawall and established them inland. The beach was under constant fire, but Roosevelt moved around them freely, rallying and directing them against the enemy. His leadership was integral to the establishment of the beachhead in France.
Sadly, he died of a heart attack on July 12, and would receive his Medal of Honor posthumously two months later.
PFC Charles N. DeGlopper
PFC Charles N. DeGlopper was born in 1921 in Grand Island, New York, joined the U.S. Army in November 1942, and served in North Africa and Italy. He glided into France on D-Day as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 325th Glider Infantry Regiment. On June 9, DeGlopper was advancing with C Company, 1st Battalion’s forward platoon as it crossed the Merderet River under cover of darkness in order to help assault German positions at La Fière Bridge. Shortly after penetrating the enemy’s outer line of defenses, however, the platoon was cut off and surrounded. DeGlopper volunteered to support his comrades by fire from his Browning Automatic Rifle while they attempted a withdrawal. Leveling his heavy weapon against the enemy, he continued to fire despite incurring several wounds, killing many Germans before he was cut down. His sacrifice saved the lives of many of his comrades, and he received the Medal of Honor posthumously in 1946. A ceremony has taken place at his memorial panel at La Fière since 2010.
Staff Sergeant Walter D. Ehlers
Staff Sergeant Walter D. Ehlers served with the 1st Division’s 18th Infantry Regiment. Born in 1921 in Junction City, Kansas, he enlisted in 1940 with his older brother Roland, and together they saw combat in North Africa and Italy before landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Roland was killed during this action as a mortar shell struck his landing vessel. Unaware that his brother had died, Walt carried on; and on June 9–10, acting as the spearhead of an attack against German forces in the Norman hedgerows, he repeatedly led his men against heavily defended enemy strong points. Without waiting for an order, S/Sgt. Ehlers, far ahead of his men, led his squad against a strongly defended German position, personally killing four members of an enemy patrol. Turning his attention to two mortars protected by the crossfire of two machine guns, Ehlers led his men through this hail of bullets to kill or put the enemy to flight, personally killing three men. He then knocked out another machine gun single-handed. The next day, Ehlers covered the withdrawal of his platoon as it weathered intense enemy fire, during which he was wounded. After having his wound treated, he refused to be evacuated, and returned to lead his squad.
He remained in action through the autumn, and was returning to combat after incurring another wound in December 1944 when he learned that he would be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Gunnery Sergeant Fred W. Stockham
Gunnery Sergeant Fred W. Stockham symbolizes the finest principles and traditions of the United States Marine Corps. Born in Detroit, Stockham lost his mother at an early age and then was handed over by his father, a traveling salesman, to a foster family in New Jersey.
He joined the Marine Corps in 1903, and served two tours of duty in the Philippines and one in China. Discharged honorably in 1907, he lived for four years in New Jersey before re-enlisting in the Marines and serving in Nicaragua as a sergeant until 1916. Discharged honorably, he once again re-enlisted, this time immediately.
He was wholly devoted to the U.S. Marine Corps. Assigned to the 96th Company, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment as the country entered World War I, Stockham joined his fellow Marines in the attack on German forces in Belleau Wood on June 6, 1918. On the night of June 13-14, Stockham’s unit was subjected to an artillery and mustard gas attack. During the attack, Gunnery Sergeant Stockham was carrying wounded Marines to an aid station when artillery shrapnel tore through the gas mask of the man he was carrying. Without hesitation, and knowing full well the consequences, Stockham took off his own mask and put it on the wounded man, carrying him to aid. He then continued to carry wounded Marines to aid without a mask before finally collapsing. He would pass away on June 22, just four days before Belleau Wood finally fell to the Americans.
In 1939, after intense advocacy by the man whose life he had saved, Stockham received a posthumous Medal of Honor. In 1943 the destroyer USS Stockham was named after him.
Sergeant Alvin C. York
Alvin Cullum York’s character didn’t amount to much—at least, not early on. Born on December 13, 1887, near the small town of Pall Mall, Tennessee, he grew up in the beautiful but lonely hills of the Upper Cumberland along the Kentucky border. His parents were poor farmers like most of the other folks in those parts, and Alvin was the third of eleven children who had to squeeze into the family’s one-room cabin. Although he worked hard on the farm, and became an expert huntsman, as a teenager Alvin fell in with a bad crowd. In common with other restless young men with little to hope for but hardscrabble farming, York drank, cussed, and got into fights—and only went to church out of a sense of duty to his parents.
That was before he met Gracie Loretta Williams. With her big blue eyes, blond hair, and graceful demeanor, Gracie bewitched Alvin and it was not long before he began attending church regularly just so that he could meet her. But Gracie’s standards were high, and so were her parents’. No rowdy young man was going to court their daughter. Held at a distance, Alvin was could only pine for the woman he loved. This painful refusal, combined with some ugly experiences in back-country drinking houses called “Blind Tigers,” convinced Alvin York to follow a new and better path.
In the Christmas season of 1914, York began attending a tent revival meeting run by Rev. Melvin Herbert Russell. “It was as if lightning struck my soul,” he recalled; and on New Year’s Day, 1915, while World War I raged in Europe, Alvin Cullum York stepped forward to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Everyone could tell that York’s heart was changed, for he embraced his new creed with all his heart and mind. And so the path opened to Gracie’s heart as well. Allowed once more to court, they took a slow and gentle path toward union, and it was not until June 1917 that Gracie consented to be Alvin’s wife. By then, though, the United States had entered the war, with fateful consequences for this humble Tennessee farmer.
Uncertain whether the Bible permitted him to fight and possibly take another man’s life, York registered for the draft only reluctantly. And when his number was called, he sought exemption as a conscientious objector. Exemption was denied, however, and so Private York entered basic training with the 82nd “All American” Division. It wasn’t until March 1918, though, after study, prayer, and debate over the war’s purpose and the Bible’s meaning with some of his officers, that York finally decided that God would permit him to fight, and possibly kill, in service to his country. Returning home for one last visit before he shipped overseas, Alvin met Gracie in a country lane for one final embrace, both of their hearts breaking as they said goodbye.
Now-Corporal Alvin York’s “day of glory” came on October 8, 1918 when, with the assistance of several fellow Doughboys, he captured 132 German soldiers in France’s Argonne Forest. In the course of the action, he also killed up to two dozen German soldiers—some of them face to face, so that he could see their expressions as they died. During the fight, he acted automatically, making use of his prowess as a hunter; and afterwards he didn’t see anything very glorious about it. Far from feeling proud of what he had done, York was horrified and ridden with guilt—not just for the men he had killed, but for the comrades whose lives he had been unable to save. On the following day, he returned to the battlefield with two stretcher bearers, looking desperately for survivors. He found none.
Promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross shortly after the action, York was awarded the Medal of Honor in France on April 18, 1919. He returned the following month to the United States, where he was treated as a hero. But York’s mind thought only of home, and Gracie. “What Ah like best of all,” he told a reporter, “is just to get back. It’s where Ah’ve been all my life an Ah reckon it’s the best place for me.” At the end of May, York made his way back up to the hills of East Tennessee. And on June 7, 1919, two years since their engagement, and two years since Alvin had been drafted into military service, he and Gracie were married.
The wedding was performed by Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts, with the ceremonies taking place beneath a bower of pine trees. “There will be no wedding march,” it was announced, “save the wind in the pines.” Afterwards, people came from the hills all around to celebrate with a “monster picnic dinner spread under the trees near York’s cabin home. For miles and miles up in the hills, some even from Kentucky, the people, old and young, have come, bringing their baskets well filled with chicken and hams and pies and cakes of a multitude of forms. . . . York and his bride . . . will be dined upon the best the Cumberland mountains afford and wined upon the crystal cold water of the gushing York spring.”
Gracie and Alvin’s marriage stood strong over the years to come, as he devoted himself to charity work and she helped soothe his haunting memories of the war. They had eight children, all of whom would emulate their parents in character, commitment, and service to their communities and to their country. Alvin, who died in 1964, and Gracie, who followed him in 1984, are buried side by side at the Wolf River Cemetery at Pall Mall, Tennessee, not far from the Alvin C. York State Historic Park that continues to pay tribute to his legacy.
Audie L. Murphy
Audie L. Murphy was born on a sharecropper farm in north Texas, near Kingston in Hunt County, on June 20, 1925. He was the seventh of twelve children. As a boy, he dropped out of school in the fifth grade and then worked on cotton fields to help support his family. Murphy was orphaned at the age of sixteen when his mother died. Murphy began his career in the Army in June of 1942 as a private in the 3rd Division, after falsifying his age to enlist and fight in World War II. He saw almost continuous combat across Europe after landing with his unit in Sicily in July 1943, and received a battlefield commission.
In November of 1944, as Allied forces broke German defenses in and around Alsace and Lorraine, a stubborn core of resistance coalesced around the town of Colmar. The area contained a significant number of German forces and became known as the “Colmar Pocket.” The troops within the pocket participated in a counterattack on Allied armies, known as Operation Nordwind, which began on January 1, 1945. The offensive failed, ending on January 25, but German forces remained in control of the Colmar Pocket. The Allies then took the initiative and began to clear out the remaining German troops. Second Lieutenant Audie Murphy and the 3rd Infantry Division were among those tasked with this mission.
On January 26, 1945, the Germans emerged from the woods near Murphy and his men’s positions. The attacking force consisted of six German tanks and more than 200 infantrymen. Murphy, concerned for his men against such overwhelming odds, ordered them to fall back into the woods. Alone, he mounted an abandoned, burning M-10 tank destroyer. Using the vehicle’s heavy machine gun, Murphy attempted to halt the German advance. For an hour, he remained on the tank destroyer, even after being wounded in the leg, and continued to fire at the advancing enemy despite heavy enemy fire. At one point during the assault, German forces came within 30 feet of Murphy before he dispatched them. He stopped only after running out of ammunition for the machine gun. In his memoir To Hell and Back Murphy writes of the aftermath: “except for a vague pain in my leg, I feel nothing: no sense of triumph; no exhilaration at being alive. Even the weariness seems to have passed. Existence has taken on the quality of a dream in which I am detached from all that is present.”
After returning to his company, Murphy refused treatment for his leg wound. Instead, he organized his men for an attack on the Germans, driving them back behind their lines. Only after this successful assault did Murphy consent to being treated. This action led to Murphy receiving the Medal of Honor at an airfield near Salzburg, Germany on June 2, 1945. On hand for his Medal of Honor ceremony were nine U.S. Senators from the Senate Military Affairs committee as well as the presenter, Lieutenant General Alexander Patch, who commanded the U.S. Seventh Army. After Patch draped the blue ribbon holding his Medal of Honor around Murphy’s neck, he then pinned the Legion of Merit to Murphy’s uniform.
By the end of World War II, Murphy had become one of the United States’ most decorated soldiers, having earned 28 medals, including several from Allied nations. Murphy had been wounded three times. His battlefield heroism earned him fame, acclaim, and allowed him to star in many Hollywood films. He portrayed himself in the movie To Hell and Back, the account of his World War II experiences. Off-screen, however, Murphy struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress and publicly called for the United States government to give more consideration to the emotional impact of war on veterans.
Tragically, he died in a plane crash on May 28, 1971, at age 45. He lies at rest in Arlington National Cemetery, which constructed a special flagstone walkway to accommodate the many people who stop to pay their respects to him.