The United States has fought twelve major wars and a countless number of smaller skirmishes in its history. Memorial Day is our way of honoring 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.
More than 600,000 Americans have died fighting for their country. Here are the stories of five who were awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for bravery, for their sacrifice:
Fred W. Stockham was born in 1881 and grew up in Detroit, Michigan. In 1903, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. After serving in the Philippines and China during his four-year tour, he returned to civilian life. He didn’t stay away from the Corps for long, though. In 1912, he re-enlisted. When the United States entered World War I, Gunnery Sergeant Stockham volunteered for combat. In early June 1918, he was in France when U.S. Marines, backed by U.S. Army artillery, launched the Battle of Belleau Wood, the first large-scale battle that U.S. forces fought in World War I. A week into the battle, Stockham’s company came under heavy bombardment from German high explosive shells and mustard gas. Stockham saw that one of his fellow marines had been wounded and no longer had a working gas mask. He gave the fallen marine his own gas mask and continued the fight against the Germans until he was overcome by the mustard gas. He died several days later. He was thirty-seven.
Douglas Albert Munro was born a year after World War I ended and grew up in South Cle Elum, Washington, a town in the central part of the state that was small even by small town standards. He joined the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939, eventually earning the rank of signalman, first class. When World War II broke out, he was assigned to duty in the South Pacific, where the Coast Guard played a significant role assisting the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps with amphibious operations. On September 27, 1942, at the Battle of Guadalcanal, Munro was in charge of twenty-four Higgins Boats that were evacuating five hundred Marines trapped onshore. Munro used his own boat, which was armed with two small guns, to pin down Japanese forces while the other boats evacuated the Marines. Just as the operation was ending, Munro was struck by a bullet and killed. His valor enabled hundreds of others to live. Munro remains the only Coast Guardsman to be awarded the Medal of Honor. The book The Guardian of Guadalcanal tells Munro’s story, as does this YouTube video.
John Kelvin Koelsch was a U.S. Navy rescue helicopter pilot who was assigned to the USS Princeton as Lieutenant (Junior Grade) shortly after the Korean War broke out. When his squadron’s tour of duty ended, he volunteered to stay in Korea, saying that he believed it was his mission to rescue downed pilots. On July 3, 1951, he volunteered to rescue Capt. James Wilkins, a marine pilot who had been shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission. Despite taking ground fire from North Korean troops, Koelsch and his crewman, George Neal, located Wilkins, who had been badly burned when he parachuted from his plane. Just after Wilkins was hoisted aboard the helicopter, it was hit. All three men survived the ensuing crash. For nine days Koelsch eluded enemy patrols, even as he tended to Neal’s burns. After the three men were captured, Koelsch was starved and beaten by the North Koreans. He nonetheless refused to cooperate with his captors, thereby inspiring his fellow prisoners-of-war. Koelsch died of malnutrition and dysentery on October 16, 1951. He was twenty-seven years old. Thankfully, both Neal and Wilkins survived imprisonment and the war. In 1968, the U.S. Navy named the USS Koelsch in honor of the first helicopter pilot to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
William “Bill” H. Pitsenbarger was born and raised in Piqua, Ohio, a small town located thirty miles north of Dayton. After graduating from high school in 1962, he volunteered to join the U.S. Air Force. Four years later, he was a veteran pararescuer and medical specialist who had participated in nearly three hundred rescue missions in Vietnam. On April 11, 1966, he volunteered to be dropped from a helicopter to provide medical aid to a company of U.S. Army soldiers pinned down in a heavy firefight and to direct the evacuation of the seriously wounded. Pitsenbarger had overseen the evacuation of nine GIs before his helicopter was hit by Viet Cong fire and forced to retreat. Before departing, Pitsenbarger’s pilot called for him to return to the helicopter on the rescue sling. He refused. For the next two hours he tended to the wounded, on several occasions dragging them out of the line of fire, and returned fire himself. The Viet Cong forces eventually breached the U.S. lines, and the American unit suffered 80 percent casualties. Airman Pitsenbarger was among those fatally wounded. One of the soldiers who survived that day said that Pitsenbarger’s decision to stay behind “was the most unselfish and courageous act I ever witnessed...That thing never leaves my mind totally. He did actually give up his life for guys on the ground that he didn’t even know. And he didn’t have to be there. I know he made the conscious decision to stay there.” A movie about Pitsenbarger’s bravery and the thirty-four year battle to have him awarded the Medal of Honor, tentatively titled The Last Full Measure, is set to begin filming this fall.
Ross A. McGinnis grew up in Knox, Pennsylvania, a small town located ninety miles north of Pittsburgh. When he was asked in kindergarten what he wanted to be when he grew up, he drew a picture of a soldier. He began to fulfill his childhood dream when he enlisted in the U.S. Army on his seventeenth birthday; it would be another year before he graduated from high school and left for basic training at Fort Benning. In August 2006, Private First Class McGinnis was deployed to Baghdad, where he served as an M2 .50-caliber Machine Gunner on an HMMWV (Humvee). On December 4, 2006, his platoon was on patrol in northeastern Baghdad when a fragmentation grenade thrown by an insurgent came through the gunner’s hatch and landed in his vehicle. Rather than jumping off the Humvee to safety, McGinnis dove into the vehicle and on top of the grenade. He saved the lives of his four crew members, but he was mortally wounded by the blast. McGinnis was just nineteen.