The United States has fought twelve major wars and numerous 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—at the time the head of an organization for Union veterans and the man for whom Logan Circle in Washington, DC, is named—called for May 30 to be designated “Decoration Day.” He said the purpose would be for “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. Since 1971, Memorial Day has been celebrated on the last Monday in May.
In honor of Memorial Day, here are the stories of five Americans who were awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for bravery, for making the ultimate sacrifice:
Corporal Harold W. Roberts was born in San Francisco, California, on October 14, 1895. During World War I, he was a tank driver with Company A, 344th Battalion of the United States Army Tanks Corps. On October 4, 1918, Corporal Roberts’s unit found itself in intense fighting in Montrebeau Woods, France, as part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. His two-man tank slipped into a ten-foot-deep shell hole filled with water and was quickly submerged. Recognizing that only one man could escape, Corporal Roberts told his gunner, “Well, only one of us can get out, and out you go.” He then pushed the gunner out of the tank’s back door and drowned in the cascading water. Camp Roberts, located near Paso Robles, California, was named for Corporal Roberts. It is the only major military installation in the Army named after a non-commissioned officer.
Pharmacist’s' Mate Third Class Jack Williams was born on October 18, 1924, in Harrison, Arkansas. He joined the Navy in 1943 and was assigned to the 5th Marine Division. He landed at Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945, while serving with the 3rd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment. On March 3, he had already tended to fourteen wounded Marines when one of his former tent mates was wounded by a grenade. Williams moved through “intense small arms fire” to tend to the wounded Marine, and he used his own body to shield the injured man from incoming fire. While providing first aid, Williams was himself struck three times by enemy fire. He nonetheless continued to tend to the Marine. After dressing his own wounds, he provided care to yet another Marine. As Pharmacist Mate Williams sought to return to the rear to get additional help, he was struck and killed by a sniper’s bullet. He was twenty years old.
First Lieutenant Frank N. Mitchell was born on August 18, 1921, in central Texas. He graduated from Roaring Springs High School in 1938 and enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1939. In 1945, he was commissioned as second lieutenant and served on the USS Enterprise. Under the Navy V-12 program, First Lieutenant Mitchell then attended Colorado College, as well as Southwestern University and North Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College. When the Korean War broke out, he served as the leader of a rifle platoon in Company A, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. On November 26, 1950, First Lieutenant Mitchell was leading his platoon on patrol in a forested, snowy area near Hansan-ni. The enemy suddenly opened fired at close range. Despite being wounded in the initial volley, First Lieutenant Mitchell led his men in fighting off the attack. He then organized a group of Marines to locate the wounded. He was killed by small arms fire while providing the covering fire that enabled the litter bearers to successfully evacuate his men from the field. Mitchell left behind a wife and daughter.
Captain Hilliard A. Wilbanks was born on July 26, 1933, in Cornelia, Georgia, a small town in the northeast part of the state. After graduating from high school in 1950, he enlisted in the Air Force. He was initially a military policeman, but gained entrance into the aviation cadet program. He earned his commission and pilot’s wings in 1955. He trained as a forward air controller, responsible for guiding other planes during close air support operations and ensuring the safety of friendly troops. He was sent to Vietnam in 1966 and assigned to the 21st Tactical Air Support Squadron. On February 24, 1967, Captain Wilbanks was on a reconnaissance mission for a South Vietnamese Army Ranger battalion one hundred miles north of Saigon. Seeing that a sizable Viet Cong force was about to ambush the battalion, Captain Wilbanks alerted the rangers to the enemy’s position and called in close air support. He quickly realized, however, that help would not arrive in time. Captain Wilbanks decided to act. Although he was flying an unarmed aircraft and would face withering ground fire, he flew one hundred feet over the Viet Cong’s position and fired his rifle out of his side window. His efforts drew their attention away from the rangers, allowing them to escape. On his third pass over the Viet Cong position, Captain Wilbanks was fatally wounded and crashed. At the time of his death, he was two months away from returning stateside. He left behind a wife and four small children.
Master Sergeant Gary I. Gordon was born on August 30, 1960, in Lincoln, Maine. He joined the army in 1978 after graduating from high school. Initially trained as a combat engineer, he eventually became part of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D), better known as Delta Force. In the fall of 1993, he was stationed in Mogadishu, Somalia. On October 3, Operation Gothic Serpent was launched to capture lieutenants of Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed. The mission went awry. Two Black Hawks were shot down. Master Sergeant Gordon volunteered to lead his team to one of the crash sites to provide cover to four downed crew members. It quickly became clear that U.S. forces on the ground would not be able to reach the crash site before it would be overrun. Master Sergeant Gordon twice volunteered to be dropped to the ground from his helicopter to protect the crew and was twice refused. His third request was granted. He and Sergeant First Class Randall David Shughart landed one hundred meters from the crash site and made their way through intense fire to the downed helicopter. They pulled out the wounded crewmen and established a perimeter around the crash site to fight off attacker. In the intense firefight that followed, Sergeant Shughart was killed. According to the official citation, Master Sergeant Gordon continued to return fire until he ran out of ammunition. He found a rifle with five rounds of ammunition, handed it to the downed pilot, and said: “Good luck.” Armed only with his pistol, Master Sergeant Gordon fought until he too was fatally wounded. The Black Hawk’s pilot was the only serviceman to survive the firefight. The story of what happened that day in Mogadishu is retold in Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down. The Roll-on/Roll-off cargo ship USNS Gordon is named in honor of Master Sergeant Gordon.