The United States has fought twelve major wars and a countless number of smaller skirmishes in its history. Memorial Day is how we honor the soldiers, sailors, airmen, airwomen, and marines who did not return home. The holiday dates back to the months immediately following the Civil War when a few towns and cities began honoring their dead. In 1868, General John A. Logan designated May 30 as “Decoration Day,” the purpose of which would be “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” The holiday was renamed Memorial Day after World War I, and its purpose became to honor all Americans who have died fighting the nation’s wars. Here are the stories of five who were awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for bravery, for making the ultimate sacrifice:
Gunner's Mate First Class Osmond Kelly Ingram was born in Pratt City, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham, on August 4, 1887. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1903, when he was just sixteen. He returned home after one tour and became a firefighter. In 1912, he re-enlisted in the Navy. During World War I, he served on the USS Casin, a destroyer charged with escorting American ships carrying troops to ports in Britain and France. On October 15, 1917, the Casin was off the coast of Ireland when Ingram saw a torpedo headed toward the ship. He ran to stern to release depth charges in the hope they would detonate the torpedo before it struck the ship. He arrived moments too late, however, and was killed in the explosion, making him the first of 431 enlisted U.S. seamen to be killed in the war. Ingram’s former boss at the Pratt City Fire Department said of him, “There was never a braver lad.” In 1919, the U.S. Navy commissioned the USS Ingram, the first ship named after an enlisted man.
Second Lieutenant Joseph Raymond Sarnoski was born on January 30, 1915 in Simpson, Pennsylvania, a township located about fifteen miles northeast of Scranton. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1936 and then re-enlisted in 1940, graduating from the Air Corps Technical School. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he was awarded a Silver Star and the Air Medal for flying combat missions for the 31st Reconnaissance Squadron. In June 1943, as member of the 43rd Bomb Group's 65th Squadron, he volunteered to be the bombardier on a B-17 named “Lucy” that had been assigned to photograph Japanese positions in the Solomon Islands. (Lucy had “666” painted on its tail, giving it a reputation for being cursed.) The crew was wrapping up its mission when Japanese fighters attacked. Second Lieutenant Sarnoski fended off the first wave from his position in the nose gun. The second wave hit Lucy, causing the plane to fall 15,000 feet and injuring five members of the crew. He nonetheless continued firing. Enemy fire eventually knocked him from his cockpit and left him mortally wounded. Second Lieutenant Sarnoski nonetheless crawled back to the gun and resumed firing until he died from his wounds. Lucy’s captain, Jay Zeamer, died in the firefight and was also awarded the Medal of Honor.
Corporal Mitchell Red Cloud Jr. was born on July 2, 1924 in Hatfield, Wisconsin. A member of the Winnebago Native American tribe, he was an avid outdoorsman who dropped out of high school to join the Marines. During World War II, he saw action at Guadalcanal and Okinawa, and was honorably discharged in 1945 after the war’s end with the rank of sergeant. In 1948, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. On the night of November 5, 1950, Corporal Red Cloud was manning an observation post on Hill 123 in North Korea as a part of Company E, 19th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division when Chinese forces attacked. Corporal Red Cloud sounded the alarm and returned fire. He was grievously wounded, but continued firing until dying from his wounds. His bravery bought Company E time to mount a defense. General Omar Bradley presented the Medal of Honor to Corporal Red Cloud’s mother, Nellie, at the Pentagon in April 1951. Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu, South Korea, which hosted U.S. military forces for nearly seventy years and is set to be turned over to the South Korean military this year, was named for him.
Private First Class James Anderson Jr. was born in Los Angeles, California on January 22, 1947. After spending several semesters in a junior college, he joined the Marine Corps. He was deployed to Vietnam in December 1966 to serve as a rifleman with the 2nd Platoon, Company F, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, 3rd Marine Division. On February 28, 1967, Private First Class Anderson and his platoon were patrolling near the village of Cam Lo in Quang Tri Province when they came under intense attack. As the Marines returned fire, a grenade landed amidst them. Private First Class Anderson jumped on it, sacrificing his own life to save the lives of his fellow Marines. He became the first African-American Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor. The prepositioning ship USNS PFC James Anderson Jr. is named in his honor.
Technical Sergeant John A. Chapman was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on July 14, 1965. He enlisted in the Air Force on September 27, 1985 and eventually trained as an Air Force combat controller, a specialty within Air Force special operations. He was deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Anaconda, an effort to destroy al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds. On March 4, 2002, Sergeant Chapman was attached to Navy SEAL Team 6, which had been tasked with establishing an observation post on a mountain known as Takur Ghar. As the helicopter approached the mountaintop at 3 a.m., it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, throwing Navy Seal Neil C. Roberts to the ground below and forcing the helicopter to make a controlled crash landing several miles away. Sergeant Chapman and his team boarded a new helicopter and set out to rescue their comrade. They landed under heavy enemy fire, and Sergeant Chapman was wounded shortly after taking out an enemy position. The Navy Seals, thinking Sergeant Chapman was dead and severely outnumbered and outgunned, retreated down the snow-covered mountain, hoping to return later to recover his body. He had only been knocked unconscious, however. After regaining consciousness, he fought alone on the mountaintop for nearly an hour. He was killed when he knowingly exposed himself to al Qaeda machine-gun fire in an effort to relieve pressure on a U.S. helicopter bringing reinforcements. Despite the heroism that Sergeant Chapman and his fellow special operators displayed, Petty Officer Roberts and five other U.S. servicemen also died in what became known as the Battle of Roberts Ridge. Sergeant Chapman was initially awarded the Air Force Cross for his bravery. In 2018, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, which was presented to his widow, Valerie. Besides his wife, Sergeant Chapman left behind two daughters. In keeping with Air Force policy for Medal of Honor recipients, he was posthumously promoted to Master Sergeant.
Corey Cooper assisted in the preparation of this post.