“I honestly don’t remember ever being afraid,” Command Sergeant Major Gary L. Littrell (U.S. Army, ret.) says, recalling a fierce four-day, four-night battle he led against a numerically superior enemy force that had surrounded his battalion and was hell-bent on destroying it. “I just remember being very, very angry, because all of sudden — from the first mortar round that killed one of my best friends and seriously wounded several others — there was this nonstop fighting that lasted for days where the enemy was killing my soldiers. The effect it had on me was extreme anger.”
Littrell, then a sergeant first class and an adviser to the South Vietnamese army was with the 23rd Battalion of the South Vietnamese army’s 2nd Ranger Group on a hilltop near Dak Seang on the night of April 4, 1970. That’s when the battle was launched by an enemy mortar attack, which killed the South Vietnamese commander, one U.S. adviser, and seriously wounded all of the other advisors except for Littrell.
The fight was on. The enemy began attacking in waves. And 24-year-old Littrell found himself in charge.
COOL UNDER FIRE
Ultimately awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (MOH) for his actions over the next several days, Littrell tells National Review Online he managed his anger by constantly telling himself he had a job to do, he was a leader in a desperate situation, and he could not allow that anger to manifest itself in “doing something dumb.”
Years later, a psychologist told Littrell, “Anger is a sign of fear.” Either can be equally debilitating in a combat environment. Yet, somehow Littrell kept it all together and saved his battalion.
According to his award citation, Littrell “exhibited near superhuman endurance” as he repeatedly raced from point to point, directing fire, shouting commands, redistributing ammo, caring for the wounded and dying, and encouraging both the frightened and the brave. In the end, “assault after assault was repulsed” by his “indomitable courage” and “extraordinary leadership.”
Superhuman indeed. What’s more amazing is that there have been thousands of other Americans who have performed similar deeds, and have been similarly awarded, since the American Civil War.
FOR “GALLANTRY IN ACTION”
On July 12, 1862 — exactly 144 years ago, today — President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the authorization for some 2,000 “medals,” which were said to be “for non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action.” These were the first official Army “Congressional Medals of Honor.”
The Navy had established a Medal of Honor, several months earlier, for its enlisted sailors and Marines. Over time, both the Army and Navy awards would be extended to commissioned officers who similarly proved themselves in combat.
Though signed into law in mid-July, the congressionally mandated National Medal of Honor Day is actually March 25 as that was the day in 1863 that the first MOHs were presented to six Union Army soldiers. Less than two weeks later, the first 41 American sailors were awarded MOHs.
Since then, 3,461 MOHs have been awarded to members of all service branches, including 43 since 1993 that have been awarded “to correct past errors, follow up on lost recommendations” or as a “result of new evidence” according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
Over the decades, the Army has presented 2,402 MOH awards to its soldiers (42 for the Air Corps), 745 for the Navy, 296 for the Marines, 17 for the Air Force (the Air Force MOH was authorized in 1956), and one for the Coast Guard.
Nineteen servicemen have received the award twice. Six-hundred fifteen men have received it posthumously. One woman, Surgeon Mary Edwards Walker, a Civil War veteran, received the award. One president, Theodore Roosevelt, received it, as did his son, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr.
The most recent MOH awards have been for combat actions in Somalia in 1993 and Iraq in 2003.
FIGHTING TO THE DEATH
Master Sergeant Gary I. Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randall D. Shughart were both awarded the MOH for their extraordinary deeds as Delta Force members of Task Force Ranger during the battle of Mogadishu, Somalia on October 3, 1993. On that day, both men volunteered to be inserted into a hell-hole of a Blackhawk helicopter crash site to defend one of two downed Blackhawk crews. They knew they would be the only two rescuers facing an overwhelming number of enemy combatants who were attacking isolated pockets of American soldiers in frenzied waves.
After three requests to their commander to be inserted from the helicopter in which they were aboard (orbiting the battlefield), the two Delta men received permission to go in.
According to their citations, “When debris and enemy ground fires at the site caused them to abort the first attempt, [they] were inserted one hundred meters south of the crash site. Equipped with only their sniper rifles and pistols, [Gordon and Shughart], while under intense small arms fire from the enemy, fought their way through a dense maze of shanties and shacks to reach the critically injured crew members.”
There they pulled the wounded pilot, Mike Durant, and other crewmembers from the downed Blackhawk, placing them in what they believed was a safer position, all the while battling scores of attackers. When it became apparent that all was lost, Gordon gave Durant a weapon and some ammo, wished him “good luck,” then returned to a position between the wounded pilot and the enemy.
Both Gordon and Shughart fought to the very last round and were killed. With the exception of Durant, all of the crewmembers also were killed. Durant, who was later captured and released, attributes his surviving to the two Delta commandoes.
BEATING BACK AN OVERWHELMING FORCE
Then there was Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith, who, nearly ten years after Mogadishu, also found himself battling a numerically superior enemy force. It was in Iraq on April 4, 2003. Smith and a handful of soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division were building a prisoner holding facility near Baghdad International Airport when they were suddenly attacked by nearly twice their number.
Smith quickly organized his men to repel the attack, personally engaged the enemy with grenades and anti-tank weapons, and helped evacuate the wounded.
Then fearing his men were about to be overrun, Smith, according to his citation, “moved under withering enemy fire to man a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a damaged armored personnel carrier. In total disregard for his own life, he maintained his exposed position in order to engage the attacking enemy force. During this action, he was mortally wounded. His courageous actions helped defeat the enemy attack, and resulted in as many as 50 enemy soldiers killed, while allowing the safe withdrawal of numerous wounded soldiers.”
NO ONE WINS THE MEDAL
MOH recipients are quick to say, no one wins the award. “In order to win something there has to be a competition,” says Littrell. “None of us feels we were competing for anything. None of us ever woke up and said, ‘okay, I’m going to go out and win a medal today.’”
Currently, there are 111 living recipients of the MOH.
At 97-years-old, Navy veteran John W. Finn is the oldest living recipient. Army veteran Gordon R. Roberts, 55, is the youngest. Paul Ray Smith would have been the youngest had he survived the action that resulted in his own MOH. He was 33 when he was killed in 2003.
A COMMON THREAD
One of the most frequently asked questions of a MOH recipient is why and how did they do what they did. “The answers we hear are, ‘it had to be done’ and ‘somebody had to do it,’” says Victoria Leslie, director of operations for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. “Others say, ‘I wasn’t thinking,’ ‘I just acted,’ ‘those were my people,’ or simply ‘my buddies were out there.’”
Why are some awarded the MOH and others are not?
For instance, Army Lieutenant Garlin Murl Conner took on six German tanks and hundreds of enemy soldiers near Houssen, France in January 1945, thwarting the enemy advance and saving the lives of the men in his own battalion. For that action, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Then there is Marine Col. (then Captain) John W. Ripley, who single-handedly blunted the North Vietnamese Army’s Easter Offensive in 1972 by blowing up the Dong Ha Bridge. Legions of active and former Marines have long contended Ripley should have received the MOH for that action and others. He did, however, receive the Navy Cross, which Littrell considers to be indistinguishable in terms of deeds performed to warrant such an award.
“I think there’s no question, when you read the citations for the MOH and then the citations for the Navy Cross [awarded to sailors and Marines], the Air Force Cross, and the Distinguished Service Cross [for the Army], it’s hard to determine which medal should be awarded,” says Littrell. “How that determination is made is through various levels or layers of boards that review the nominations and proposed citations.”
The standards for awarding all service crosses and the MOH are extremely high, and each service branch has set forth their own regulations to ensure there is no doubt — with zero margin of error — as to who deserves the medals.
Regarding the awarding of the Medal of Honor, according to the MOH Society:
The deed of the person must be proved by incontestable evidence of at least two eyewitnesses.
The deed must be so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes his [the proposed recipient’s] gallantry beyond the call of duty from lesser forms of bravery.
The deed must involve the risk of his life.
The deed must be the type, which, if he had not done it, he would not be subjected to any justified criticism.
In other words, those receiving the award are those who have performed a deed during combat action so bold, courageous, and utterly effective that the deed is deemed as something that no one could ever actually be expected to do in any one lifetime. But that’s exactly what all recipients have done.
“We are not superheroes,” says Littrell. “We are ordinary people who found ourselves in extraordinary situations, and we did our jobs. Fact is, if any soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, or Coast Guardsmen are faced with similar circumstances tomorrow, the majority of them will do the exact same thing.”
Foreign equivalents to the Congressional Medal of Honor, include Great Britain’s Victoria Cross, France’s Légion d’ honneur, Germany’s Iron Cross, and Russia’s Order of Saint George.
– A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of five books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.