Heroic War Stories that Earned these Unknown Veterans the Medal of Honor
Throughout history, brave men and women have gone to the front lines to protect and serve their country. Often, these individuals are awarded the nation’s highest military honor – the Congressional Medal of Honor. Despite their heroics, these service members are not well-known in American history. These recipients are of varying races, religions and cultures – display faces that convey to the melting pot of America.
1. William H. Carney
A former slave from Norfolk, VA, William Harvey Carney initially wanted to pursue a career as a minister. Fate had different plans for William H. Carney, however, and it came with the sound of war. According to the U.S. Army, only 88 service members who received the Medal of Honor were black, out of 3,500 total recipients of the prestigious award.
Carney thought the best way to serve God was through the military. As an enlisted man, Carney served C Company, 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first official black unit in the Union Army.
Carney earned his Medal of Honor on July 18, 1863, when the unit’s color guard came under heavy fire during a charge on Fort Wagner. As Carney watched the color guard stumble toward death, he lunged for the flag, preventing the colors from touching the ground.
He planted the flag in the sand and held it upright, despite suffering severe gunshot wounds. Carney kept it upright until his “near-lifeless” body was rescued. Even then, he clutched to the flag, keeping it above the ground, never allowing another to take it from him until he was safe within Union Army barracks. For his bravery, William H. Carney was the first black soldier awarded the Medal of Honor on May 23, 1900.
2. Joseph H. De Castro
Joseph H. De Castro was only 18-hears-old when he enlisted as the standard bearer for the 19th Massachusetts Infantry. De Castro went on to face one of the bloodiest offensives during the Civil War, Pickett’s Charge.
The battle, named after Confederate Major General George Pickett, took place on July 3, 1863. An assault, commanded by Robert E. Lee, created a bombardment of consistent cannon fire unlike anything previously experienced in the war. One witness reported the scene as “A continuous succession of crashing sounds as to make us feel as if the very heavens had been rent asunder…”.
Along with six soldiers from his unit, De Castro witnessed one Confederate brigade, the Garnett Brigade, storm the walls where they were stationed. Instead of pulling back, De Castro took charge. He raged through cannon fire with only the Union flag in hand, storming against the oncoming wave of Confederate soldiers.
As De Castro rampaged, he locked on to the 19th Virginia Infantry’s standard bearer. Wielding his flagstaff like a baton, he clubbed him to the ground. The flag down, De Castro pried it from his enemy’s hands and sprinted back to his commanding general. Stunned, De Castro’s commander just stared in awe at his flag bearer. Before he could tell De Castro anything else, he surrendered the enemy flag to his commander, and pivoted back toward the fray, the Union flag waving over his head.
3. Powhatan Beaty
A farmer from Ohio, Powhatan Beaty enlisted in the Union Army, where he was posted to G Company, 5th Infantry. A diligent soldier, he was promoted to rank of first sergeant just two days after his enlistment.
A year passed with little combat until his company was sent to march with Major General Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James to attack the Richmond defenses. The assault resulted in a bloodbath. This assault would later fall under a series of battles known as the “Battle of Chaffin’s Farm,” and would cost the nation nearly 5,000 lives.
Here, Ulysses S. Grant wanted to cut the railroad supply lines west of Petersburg by creating a distraction in the North, while Beaty’s Company attacked. Grant hoped to distract Robert E. Lee, who attempted to counterattack against Benjamin Butler’s Army, but his plan backfired.
While traversing carefully through an extensive enemy minefield, until he and an affiliated company fell under attack. Out of the 700 Union soldiers who charged in the assault, 365 soldiers were killed in the first wave (including all white commanding officers). Beaty, who was a part of the second wave, was destined for the same fate, but he decided there was no way he was going to walk into a slaughter without a fight. He then decided to take command of G Company, and gallantly lead them out alive.
4. Henry Johnson
Sergeant Henry Johnson has to be, hands down, one of the fiercest soldiers ever to receive the Medal of Honor during WWI. Out of the 33 Medals of Honor bestowed during the war, only two were given to black soldiers (Freddie Stowers being the second).
Johnson enlisted in the U.S. Army on June 5, 1917, to the all-black 15th NY National Guard Regiment. Due to prejudice in the armed services at the time, Johnson’s team was poorly-trained and set to perform menial tasks, such as digging latrines and unloading supply trucks. Less concerned about the regiment’s race, the French welcomed the 15th with open arms. This regiment later became known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”
One evening, the Hellfighters were sent to the western edge of the Argonne Forest in France. There, Johnson and Needham Roberts were given French uniforms and weapons4 and were taught enough French to obey simple commands from their superiors. As the two stood post, Johnson reported hearing the clipping of wire cutters at the perimeter fence. Suddenly, gunfire erupted…
Faced with more than 20 German soldiers, Johnson used grenades, his rifle, and bolo knife to push back the onslaught. In the end, Johnson killed four German soldiers and wounded anywhere between 10 to 20 of the enemy. Sergeant Henry Johnson was the first American to receive the Croix du Guerre (France’s highest military honor), and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2015, nearly 100 years after his discharge.
5. Freddie Stowers
Another prominent figure in WWI history, Freddie Stowers, was the second black recipient of the Medal of Honor. Stowers enlisted at Fort Jackson, where he joined the First Provisional Infantry Regiment on Oct. 4, 1917.
Once he joined, Stowers served as squad leader of C Company, 371st Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division. In this capacity, he led a courageous attack at Hill 188, an intense battle sight fought by African American troops in Champagne Marne Sector, France. Following a few minutes of initial fire, the enemy ceased shooting and emerged from their trenches.
This ceasefire represented what Stower and the rest of the American forces believed to be a surrender. Little did Stowers know, however, that the trap had been set. Once the enemy was 300 feet from Stower’s regiment, the Germans jumped back into their trenches.
They then opened fire on Stower’s squadron with machine guns and mortars, slaying the American forces. Although Stowers was overwhelmed with the sudden fire, he took charge and faced the enemy as bullets flew past him. Wounded, he led his men to the machine gun emplacement and pressed the attack until the enemy was eliminated. Mortally wounded, Freddie Stowers was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously in 1991, 70 years after his death.
6. Benjamin Kaufman
Benjamin Kaufman was a Jewish-American soldier who enlisted in the U.S. Army during the onset of WWI. Also, a Syracuse University when WWI crashed through America’s front door, his involvement proved an example of valor in the battlefield.
Assigned to K Company, 308th Infantry, Kaufman climbed through the ranks after performing ideally as a soldier. In a daring rescue in France, Kaufman was blinded by a gas shell. He was ushered to the hospital, though Kaufman vehemently refused any medical attention. Since Kaufman was useless if he was blind and injured, he was forced to seek medical attention. That’s when he decided to do something drastic.
Kaufman was determined to return to the field, so he stole a uniform and made his way back to his unit. Since he was caught in a stolen uniform, he was threatened with a dishonorable discharge. He made a valid argument that he had done nothing wrong, however, and was simply doing what he thought was best.
Before he could reach the machine guns, Kaufman was shot in the arm. With a grenade ready in his good arm, he tossed it into the machine gun emplacement. It exploded, and Kaufman made his next move, waving an empty pistol toward the enemy. He returned with the prisoner, relayed the enemy’s position to his commander, then fainted from blood-loss. Due to this intelligence, it was possible for the Americans to move forward with their attack.
7. Ernest Childers
When President Roosevelt declared war against the Axis Powers, he began preparations to send his soldiers to the front lines. In the mass of men who enlisted, A Muskogee (Creek) Indian, Ernest Childers was one many who wanted to protect his country against foreign dictatorship.
Childers is one of five Native American soldiers to receive the highest military honor in the U.S. in the 20th century (and by far one of the bravest). As an enlisted man, he was mobilized with the National Guard where he joined his unit, the 180th Infantry Regiment, 90th Infantry Brigade (then the 45th Infantry Division). Despite his extensive training, Childers could’ve never imagined that he would become a war hero.
By September 1943, Childers had seen his fair share of combat and was combing north through Italy. Toward the end of the month, he was out leading a patrol of eight men near Oliveto when they came under heavy mortar fire.
During the chaos, Childers broke his ankle while jumping into a shell crater, rendering him to crawl to the nearby aid station. With relief in sight, as he approached, Childers realized that it had been destroyed. Childers shouted orders for them to cover him as he crawled toward German position. In the end, he single-handedly captured two machine gun nests, killed two snipers, and captured an enemy mortar observer.
8. Vernon J. Baker
Orphan-turned-gallant-soldier, Vernon J. Baker, was assigned to the segregated 270th Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division in 1941. Baker was one of the first soldiers among the first black unit in WWII, as well as one of the most decorated in his division.
On April 5, 1945, while stationed in Italy, Baker’s unit was approaching the town of Viareggio. Here, he was ordered to launch an assault against Castle Aghinolfi, a mountain stronghold occupied by the Germans. The head of his weapon’s platoon, Lieutenant Baker, and about 25 men reached the south side of the castle at dawn. There, he and his men committed an act of great valor in the heat of danger.
Crawling up and under the castle’s observation post, he positioned a machine gun in the slit of the post and open fire, killing the observation post’s two occupants. Lieutenant Baker then stumbled upon a camouflaged machine gun nest, where, according to PBS, a crew of German soldiers was eating breakfast. He shot and killed both enemy soldiers, taking the nest.
The overwhelming barrage of shell and small arms fire forced the assisting division to order a retreat, but Lieutenant Baker had other plans. When the smoke settled, Lieutenant Baker accounted for nine dead enemy soldiers, three eliminated machine gun positions, an observation post and a dugout. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Clinton in 1996.
9. Daniel Inouye
When Pearl Harbor was leveled by Japanese bombers in WWII, a great deal of Japanese-Americans came under scrutiny, subjected to great discrimination. Dan Inouye was among those, persecuted for his race and cultural heritage, although he was second generation Japanese-American. This led to one of America’s darkest moments in history: Japanese internment camps.
Although Inuoye was fortunate enough to avoid the internment camps, he set out to prove he bore no relation to the Imperial Japanese soldiers. To prove himself a “true American,” Inouye enlisted in the U.S. Army. He bid his family farewell and joined the segregated all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team. “Nisei” denoted a person born in the U.S. or Canada whose parents immigrated from Japan (a.k.a the ‘Go for Broke’ regiment team).
In 1944, his regiment was transferred from Italy to the Vosges Mountains region in France, where they were ordered to locate and rescue a lost battalion of 400 U.S. infantry. With his regiment, Inouye broke through German defenses and successfully rescued 211 men, losing an arm in the process.
At one point, according to the National Park Services, while he was leading the attack, “A German round struck him in the chest directly above his heart, but the bullet was stopped by two silver dollars that he happened to have stacked in his shirt pocket.” Inouye lost nearly all his men in the siege, charging in with 185 men and walking out with only eight unscathed. Not only did Inouye serve in WWII, but also as the Senator of Hawaii from 1963 to his death in 2012.
10. Jack C. Montgomery
An Army officer and a Cherokee Native American, Jack C. Montgomery served as first lieutenant in the 180th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division, and was well regarded among his fellow troops.
While little information is available regarding Montgomery’s personal life, his military history speaks volumes to the man. He was dedicated to his country and what it represents, similar to the many service members fighting for our country today. For this reason, it is only appropriate that Montgomery’s story should begin in the tides of war.
In late February 1944, Montgomery and his regiment were stationed near Padiglione, Italy, when, in the early morning, an enemy soldier stood before Montgomery’s platoons. Without waiting for the enemy to attack, Montgomery took an M-1 rifle and hand grenades and crawled toward the enemy’s position.
With this packed arsenal, Montgomery fired his rifle and rained hand grenades at the enemy. All in all, he accounted for 11 dead enemy soldiers, 32 prisoners, and an unknown number of enemy wounded. For these heroic deeds, Montgomery was awarded the Medal of Honor on Jan. 15, 1945.
11. Silvestre S. Herrera
Silvestre Santana Herrera was born an orphan in Camargo, Chihuahua, MX on Dec. 31, 1916. Adopted by his uncle, Herrera grew up, married, and had three children before the war. When war broke out in 1941, Herrera was initially exempted from the military draft (since he was a family man).
That all changed when the exemption was waived, however, and Herrera was called to join the 142nd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division. Though hesitant to leave his family, he knew that he had to heed the call. When his parents died, Herrera’s uncle illegally brought him into the U.S. Because he was not a U.S. citizen, they couldn’t force him to go.
Herrera, however, didn’t see it that way. In a 2005 interview with LA Times, Herrera said that, “I didn’t want anybody to die in my place.” He and his fellow soldiers were walking along a wooden path near Mertzwiller, France, on March 15, 1945, until they were cut down by machine gun fire.
Firing an M-1 rifle from his hip, Herrera threw one of his grenades at an enemy machine gun emplacement, and then a second, single-handedly capturing eight enemy soldiers. He charged forth, but not without stepping on two landmines, ultimately losing both of his feet. Herrera was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and the highest military honor in Mexico, first person ever to receive the two simultaneously.
12. Rudolf B. Davila
In May of 1944, Davila took action and showed his heroism when he and his platoon broke through the German mountain stronghold near the Anzio, Italy beachhead.
Caught unaware by enemy gunfire on the open foothills near the perimeter, Davila’s and his platoon were spotted by a German machine gunner. While his men looked to run for the hills, Davila stood his ground. Despite taking cover, Davila was still in the brunt of the gunfire, and demanded a semiautomatic weapon.
Using hand signals, Davila directed his weapon at a second nest until the enemy was silenced. Slightly wounded, he raced toward a burning tank, climbed on the tank’s turret, and opened fire. He then proceeded to bomb and fire at an abandoned farmhouse that was sheltering five German soldiers, where he positioned himself in its attic and gunned down the remaining enemy machine guns.
13. Roy P. Benavidez
Roy P. Benavidez was nothing more than the son of a sharecropper who picked sugar beets and cotton, but he never let that dictate his position in life. He joined the army at age 19, went to airborne school, and was later stationed in South Vietnam.
In 1964, Benavidez stepped on a landmine, which injured his body to the point where doctors feared he would never walk again. Benavidez had other plans, however. Not only did he walk again, but he was admitted into the United States Army Special Forces (a.k.a the Green Berets). That’s when he received a call, one which brought him back to South Vietnam to carry out a rescue mission.
According to the LA Times, on May 2, 1968, Benavidez received a disturbing radio call from his base in Loc Ninh, South Vietnam. It was from a 12-man special forces team that was ambushed by North Vietnamese troops a few miles from Cambodia.
Without hesitation, Benavidez boarded an evacuation helicopter and flew toward his men. During the rescue, Benavidez was shot in the face, head and right leg. For six hours, he led eight survivors (four had been killed) in organized return fire until their rescue. Pronounced dead on arrival, Benavidez was put into a body bag, but just as they rolled up the zipper, Benavidez managed to spit in the surgeon’s face. Benavidez ultimately survived and was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1981. He was further immortalized as a G.I. Joe.
14. Lawrence Joel
Already a veteran of WWII, Lawrence Joel was drafted for service in Vietnam in 1965, where he served as a surgeon for wounded soldiers.
On Nov. 8, 1965, his unit was ambushed by Viet Cong. Instead of retreating from the hellfire of the ambush, Joel was determined to save his wounded men. In a hail of gunfire, Joel tended to the wounded despite the dangers surrounding him. He talked his men into a tranquil state, shouting words of encouragement as man after man was cut down.
Joel moved between the machine guns on his knees until he was hit on his right leg by machine gun fire. Hearing the pained cries of his fellow soldiers, Joel got back up again, tending to his wound by administering morphine.
A second bullet struck him, this time in the thigh, but still, Joel refused to give in. He dragged himself over the battlefield, saving and treating 13 more soldiers. When he and his unit were finally rescued, Joel was immediately nominated to receive the Medal of Honor, which was presented to him on March 9, 1967, by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
15. Melvin Morris
A commander of a Strike Force, Staff Sergeant Melvin Morris served in D Company, 5th Special Forces Group, The events that took place on September 17, 1969, near Chi Lang Province would earn him this top honor.
While traversing carefully through an extensive enemy minefield, until he and an affiliated company fell under attack, Morris heard that a fellow team commander had been fatally wounded near an enemy bunker and before Morris could hear any further orders, he took matters into his own hands.
Organizing a group of men, Morris took charge, taking two men behind him for cover as he antagonized the hostile forces as a distraction. They succeeded, and the enemy began firing at Morris and his small unit, wounding the two following him.
When his men fell, Morris helped them return to his force’s lines and ordered the remaining soldiers to charge toward the subsiding enemy fire. All at once, they raced toward them with only his men to cover him. As he pulled his commander’s body back to safety, he was wounded three times but persisted until reaching his company. Although Morris was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1969, he did not receive it until given by President Barack Obama in 2014.