Many readers are I’m sure familiar with the 1927 Buster Keaton silent classic The General, a comedy about an intrepid though bungling Confederate railroad engineer pursuing Yankee raiders who have stolen his much-loved steam engine and erstwhile fiancée. O.K., so what is the link between Keaton’s film and the Medal of Honor? The General was very loosely based on an actual event; in April 1862, 20 Union soldiers from Ohio and two civilians, led by a scout named James J. Andrews, penetrated deep into Georgia on a raiding mission to disrupt the Confederate rail and communications system. Their plan was to steal a train and head north towards Chattanooga, on which Union forces were moving, burning bridges, and cutting telegraph wires as they went. At the town of Big Shanty (now Kennesaw), the raiders happened upon a passenger train, The General, which they commandeered. But the train conductor, Andrew Fuller (“Johnny Gray” in Keaton’s opus) set off after the raiders on an 80-mile high-speed chase. In the film version, the raiders get back to their own lines with Keaton in pursuit, leading to various comedic situations. In reality the Yankees abandoned “The General” a few miles short of their objective and scattered into the countryside.
All 22 raiders were soon captured. Eight, including Andrews, were executed after a military trial in Atlanta. The rest were held as prisoners of war. Eight escaped jail in October, and the remaining six were exchanged in March 1863 for a like number of Confederates held by the Union. They reached Washington on March 25. Two weeks earlier the Congress, in the Civil Appropriations Act, had authorized the president “to cause to be struck from the dies recently prepared at the United States Mint, for that purpose, ‘Medals of Honor,’ … and present the same to such officers, non-commissioned officers and privates, as have most distinguished, or who may hereafter most distinguish themselves in action, and $20,000 are appropriated to defray the expenses of the same.” Secretary of War Edwin Stanton saw an opportunity to highlight the courage and sacrifice of these men, and all six were awarded the Medal of Honor. The first went to the youngest of the raiders, Private Jacob Parrott, then only 19 years old. The men were also awarded $100, given commissions as Lieutenants, and given a private audience with President Lincoln. Eventually all but three of the 22 men on the mission received the medal.
To commemorate this event, Congress has designated March 25 as National Medal of Honor Day. The purpose of the holiday is to recognize the heroism of the more than 3,400 recipients, educate the public on the medal and what it means, and to celebrate and honor the more than 100 living recipients of the medal.
Like the first, the latest Medal of Honor recipient has also been portrayed in film. In the 2002 movie We Were Soldiers, Greg Kinnear played a chopper pilot who voluntarily flew mission after mission into Landing Zone X-Ray during the Battle of Ia Drang, braving intense enemy fire for 14 hours bringing vital supplies to the besieged soldiers and taking out the wounded when crews of the medevac helicopters refused to take the risk. He was portraying real-life pilot Bruce P. “Snake” Crandall, who was awarded the medal on February 26, 2007. (His wingman, Ed “Too Tall” Freeman, had been awarded the medal in 2001, after a campaign spearheaded by Crandall.) “I did my job,” Crandall said, describing his motivation for the effort. “It had to be done.” He felt honored to be given the award, but expressed regret for the other men who did heroic acts and did not live through the battle.
Crandall was an All-American high-school baseball player, drafted in 1953 — sadly not by the Major Leagues but by the Army. He stayed in the service because he loved flying. He helped develop the first airmobile tactics, and the Battle of Ia Drang was his baptism of fire as a commander. “I didn’t like being shot at,” he said, “but it was part of the job.” Crandall served as a technical advisor on the film, and said that the version of events was very accurate. One memorable scene shows Kinnear as Crandall being accused of showboating by the commander of the medevac unit that would not brave the fire. Crandall, outraged, draws his pistol and points it at the officer’s head. The incident actually took place — though Crandall said that he in fact pointed the gun lower at “the things [the officer] wasn’t using.”
Crandall and Freeman were the sole lifeline for Lieutenant General (ret.) Hal Moore (then a Lieutenant Colonel) and his outnumbered, beleaguered troops. Crandall noted that Moore commanded the same unit as Custer (1st battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment) in the Ia Drang fight. “I told Moore I kept him from being famous,” Crandall said. “If Custer had had two of my helicopters you’d never have heard of him either.” The two chopper pilots were instrumental in preventing a major American military defeat. Though they waited many years, their bravery was finally recognized by a grateful nation.
These are a few of the many stories of the Medal of Honor. It is worth a stop at Home of Heroes or one of the other sites honoring the men who have received the decoration for bravery in battle, to read the citations and descriptions of the battles in which they fought. Their tales are exciting, inspirational, and true. Then go rent The General because few people are funnier than Buster Keaton.