There are a lot of people we call heroes these days. Like so many superlatives, the word is cheapened by such use. The builders of the 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center site are using it to describe both the innocents killed at their desks and the firemen and police who risked and often lost their lives trying to save whoever they could. Our history is rich with such selfless heroism. On the Fourth of July we celebrate those heroes who, in the Declaration of Independence, staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor on our freedom. As we remember them, we must also remember the millions who have fought to keep us free, and the heroes among them. Over the past few months, I have been privileged to work and talk with a number of men whose valor in combat met the highest of standards, the toughest of criteria. They are among the few, so very few, who have done so and lived to tell the tale.
Since 1863, when the Medal of Honor was first awarded to Army Private Jacob Parrot for his part in the Andrews Raid, about 40 million Americans have worn the uniform of our country in time of war. Only 3,440 of them have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Our nation’s highest military honor is awarded by the president, on behalf of the Congress, to members of our armed services who, while engaged in combat, distinguish themselves conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of their lives, above and beyond the call of duty. Only 137 of these men still live. On the list that includes the names of Teddy Roosevelt, Sergeant York, and Audie Murphy, you will find these names.
TOMMY AND MIKE
There are only three Navy SEALs who have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Sen. Bob Kerry is one. Tommy and Mike are the other two. When you sit down to dinner with the two of them, you can’t see how two people so different from each other could be so close. And then you hear why.
Tommy — then Lt. Thomas Norris, USN — was the leader of a SEAL unit operating in the northernmost part of South Vietnam (or maybe it was the southernmost parts of North Vietnam, though he wouldn’t say) rescuing downed American pilots. On April 10, 1972, Norris led a small patrol a mile across enemy lines to rescue one pilot, and on the 11th, led two unsuccessful attempts to rescue a second. On the 12th, he succeeded in rescuing the second pilot, but while directing air strikes to cover their retreat, Norris was separated from the rest of his unit. Thinking Norris was dead, they withdrew with the rescued pilot. But Mike went back for his skipper.
Mike — who was Tommy’s #2 man — was told by the retreating patrol that Tommy was dead, but Mike couldn’t leave him behind. Mike went back — through a mile of heavy fire — and found Tommy severely wounded. As Mike tells the story, he put all the pieces of Tommy he could find back together, grabbed him and the unconscious South Vietnamese soldier who was also there, and beat it to the beach. Tommy is a slight man, about five-nine, and not more than 150 pounds. Mike is a huge bear of a man, probably six-three and 250 pounds. Mike tied Tommy to his back, the Vietnamese to his front, and swam out into the ocean. Over two hours later, the three were picked up by a rescue boat.
RON, BARNEY, BRIAN & WOODY
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society is chartered by Congress, but unfunded. (They fund the NEA, but not the CMOHS. Go figure). A few of us decided to help do something about that. Three Medal recipients volunteered to serve on the committee with us. Ron Ray, Harvey C. “Barney” Barnum, and Brian Thacker are the three Medal recipients I’ve come to know best. They helped us organize the recent Congressional Medal of Honor Society Golf Classic fundraiser. Another recipient, a generation older and always ready to help, Hershel “Woody” Williams is the chaplain of the Society, a rather quiet guy. All four are modest, not anxious to talk about their experiences in combat. They want to talk about each other, and how they can continue to serve America.
Remember the book (later the Mel Gibson movie), We Were Soldiers Once, and Young? That battle took place in the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam. In that same place, in June 1966, Ron Ray was an army captain leading ambush patrols. When one of his patrols was cut off, and attacked by a much larger enemy force, Ron led reinforcements through a mile of mountainous jungle, and then led the attack on the Viet Cong at close quarters. When an enemy hand grenade landed near two of his men, Ron threw himself on the ground between the grenade and the two soldiers, saving their lives. Severely wounded, Ron kept up the fight. He just wouldn’t quit. Now he’s one of those people you’d love to have as a friend and neighbor. He’s just a great guy to be around.
It’s no less a pleasure to have Barney or Brian around. Barney looks like a college professor. Well, maybe not. His tie is too straight, his shoes too shiny to pass as the typical academic. In coat and tie, you don’t see the picture that accompanies his Medal citation. Col. Harvey Barnum is a Marine with a capital “M.” In December 1965, Barney was a lieutenant serving in Quang Tin province when his unit was cut off from the battalion, under murderous fire. Barney — without regard for his own safety — found his dying company commander and gave aid to him, then removed the radio from the back of the dead radio operator nearby and took command. Braving heavy fire all the while, Barney organized a counterattack and led it, enabling the battalion to take its objective.
Brian Thacker hardly gets a chance to talk when the other guys get rolling. He’s a quiet fellow, and seems content to listen. Brian is a real intellect, and has a lot to say if you take the time to pry it out of him. His story — like that of his comrades — is simply hard to grasp for those of us who haven’t been there and done that. Brian was an Army lieutenant in 1971 at a forward-fire base in Kontum Province. His unit was overrun by North Vietnamese that vastly outnumbered them. Brian stayed in his exposed position for four hours, rallying the troops and directing air strikes on the enemy. When his unit pulled out, Brian stayed — alone — providing cover fire as they withdrew. He was badly wounded himself, but managed to escape and evaded capture for eight days until the friendlies found him. And then there’s Woody.
If you go to the Marine Memorial in Arlington, Virginia on the Fourth of July, and stand behind it, the fireworks burst over the Mall behind it, a spectacular faux-battle above the bronze men. The statue is taken from Joe Rosenthal’s famous picture of the Marines raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima in February of 1945, probably the most famous image from World War II.
Woody Williams is a quiet, gentle man, quick to smile or say a kind word. He lives in a small town in West Virginia where he teaches a Sunday school class for adults. Woody was a demolition sergeant with the 3rd Marines on February 23, 1945, in the midst of that brutal battle. Thousands of Marines died taking Iwo Jima. More would have but for Woody.
Marine tanks were trying — in vain — to open a corridor for the infantry to advance past a network of Japanese concrete pillboxes, mines, and volcanic sand. What the tanks couldn’t do, Woody did. His medal citation says, “Covered only by 4 riflemen, he fought desperately for four4 hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flamethrowers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another.” My father was there, somewhere in that battle. It may be that one of the lives Woody saved by his heroism was that of Capt. Harold Babbin, USMCR.
Ordinary heroes? There ain’t no such thing, not among this group. They may have started as ordinary men, but each found something inside himself that raised him to risk his life above and beyond the call of duty. There are many thousands of others who have fought bravely and well, and many of them have not lived to celebrate their heroism. We must do it for them. By remembering, and by appreciating what they have preserved for us: a freedom unknown anywhere else in the world. Happy Fourth of July.
— NRO Contributor Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and is now an MSNBC military analyst.