William Parker was a crusty 62-year-old Navy enlisted man, a Sailmaker’s Mate on the cruiser USS San Francisco known to the crew as simply “the old man.” He was a hard worker, and well respected by his shipmates. But he was a hard drinker as well. He went ashore in Brooklyn one night in 1894, and came back weaving. He was arrested, and told he would have to face court martial. The old sailor cleaned himself up as well as he could, donned his best, though worn, uniform, and presented himself for trial. The president of the court, a young Lieutenant Commander, peered down at him.
”What is that medal, Parker, you have on?” he asked. Parker blushed.
“It is a Medal of Honor, sir,” he replied. Parker was new to the Brooklyn. Few on board knew that “the old man” had been a hero in the naval battles around New Orleans in April, 1862. He was at the wheel of the USS Cayuga when it was raked by fire from Confederate Forts St. Philip and Jackson, and attacked by three rebel steamers. In great peril and under heavy fire he kept a steady hand and guided the ship to its objective, leading the force that seized the enemy garrisons.
The members of the court looked at each other, in embarrassment and amazement. After a brief consultation the president said, “All right, you are excused. Go back to your quarters and don’t get drunk any more.” The court, as was required by regulations, found Parker guilty. But he was never punished, and thereafter the officers treated him with much greater respect.
Would you know a Medal of Honor winner if you met one? You can get to know 116 living recipients in Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty, a compilation of stories and accounts of the men who have been recognized with our country’s highest military award for bravery. The book was published in collaboration with the nonprofit Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. The foreword is by President George H. W. Bush, with introductions by Tom Brokaw and Senator John McCain. The text, by Peter Collier, captures the moments in which these American fighting men found themselves in difficult situations and rose to the occasion. The entries are arranged alphabetically, so the reader finds himself on one page in Belgium, 1944, next in the Mekong Delta, 1967, then Chosin, Guadalcanal, and many other battles, famous and lesser known. There are men of all ranks, from Raymond M Clausen Jr., a Marine Private and helicopter crewman who saved 18 fellow Marines from a minefield near Da Nang while under heavy fire (one of only two Privates to win the medal in Vietnam non-posthumously); to Louis H. Wilson, Commandant of the Marine Corps 1975-1979, who as a Captain on Guam in 1944, fought a two-day hand-to-hand defense of an improvised defensive position against superior numbers, being wounded three times but holding his ground.
Some of these men you would recognize, such as James B. Stockdale, awarded the medal for his leadership of American POWs during his eight years confinement in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” or Senator Bob Kerrey, whose SEAL team was ambushed by guerrillas as they moved towards a village to stop Vietcong who were killing helpless civilians. Kerrey successfully organized a defense and counterattack, even though the lower half of his left leg had been virtually blown off by a grenade. It was later amputated at the knee. Others you have probably never heard of, like Ernest Childers, a Creek Indian from Oklahoma who virtually single-handedly took a hill in Italy defended by a series of German machine-gun nests. Lieutenant Childers went to his award ceremony not knowing he was the man being honored, and not even knowing what the medal was until his awestruck sergeant told him. And if you ever wondered who the man receiving the Medal of Honor from President Johnson in Forrest Gump really was, meet Sammy L. Davis, an Army artilleryman who stayed with his howitzer as the Vietcong advanced right up to the muzzle. He fired every shell he had, from beehive rounds to white phosphorous to, finally, a psyop shell filled with propaganda leaflets.
The large, full-page portraits by photographer Nick del Calzo show the men as they are today. He captured his subjects in a variety of setting–a living room, the desert, West Point, a farm, the Wall. The current photos are juxtaposed with smaller period pictures, showing the men as they were around the time they earned their distinction. One is struck by just how young they look. One of them, Jack H. Lucas, had celebrated his 17th birthday five days before he hit the beaches at Iwo Jima. He had been a Marine truck driver in Hawaii when he stowed away on the USS Deuell in order to get in the action. On Iwo his unit fought a close struggle in a trench with a Japanese suicide squad. Two grenades landed near Lucas, and he dove on them to save his buddies. One failed to detonate; the other inflicted grievous wounds. Lucas was almost left for dead, but when his comrades were removing his dog tags he managed to wiggle his hand. He went through 22 surgeries, but made it back alive. When he was discharged in September 1945, he returned home and entered high school as a freshman.
The contemporary photographs are in rich black and white, easing comparisons to the older images. The style also brings out the sense of quiet courage the book intends to convey. There is no bravado here. None of these men were medal hunters. The expressions are pensive, gentle, introspective. They are the faces of our brothers, our fathers or grandfathers. There is no halo around them, nothing to show that there was a time in their lives when they were called on to do great deeds. The black-and-white pictures are also symbolic of the choices these men faced, in the brief moments they had to make them. Sometimes circumstances impose conditions of surpassing danger when life loses its nuances and complexity, when action is more important than deliberation. These are the moments when character comes to the fore. Such times are rarely predictable; one cannot plan for them, nor summon inspiration from dry wells when they arrive. Having the positive qualities of character ready when they are needed necessitates always having them. Most of us will never have to face situations as extreme as those described in this book, but we can draw inspiration from the men who lived through them, and received the recognition of a grateful nation.