Forgotten Heroes, a recollection of the Medal of Honor’s legacy

The following article was submitted by CH (COL-Ret) Tom Decker, USACCRA Member.

Chaplains have unique opportunities to be present when our nation’s heroes are on parade. As the post chaplain at Ft Huachuca during the late 1990s, I had the occasion to be with the Buffalo Soldier Association for a special weekend to “Remember our Forgotten Heroes,” in recognition of seven Medal of Honor recipients. At that time, there was one living recipient and the other six were represented by family or, in one case, by a veteran who had been rescued by the MOH recipient.

Early in 1997 President William Clinton had corrected a grievous wrong for seven US Army soldiers who were denied the Medal due to racism at the end of World War II.

One other invited guest had a unique story to tell of the awarding of his own Medal for action during the Cold War as a result of an Israeli attack on his ship in the Mediterranean.

Each of the recipients’ stories provides insight into the valor connected with America’s highest military award, and also a glimpse of the fragile integrity connected with the award for men and women deserving of the nation’s recognition.

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1LT Vernon Baker began his talk on Cavalry Parade Field on May 3, 1997, with the Latin phrase, “America, te amo.” He then provided the translation for his Latin phrase, “America, I love you,” adding, “I could not have said that when I left Ft Huachuca the last time.”

First Lieutenant Vernon Baker, USA, Retired, MOH, was the single living guest of honor when the Buffalo Soldiers Association honored seven African American recipients of the Medal for a weekend of celebration, 1-4 May 1997.

Family members of five of the other six recipients were present during the weekend ceremonies and celebrations. The family of Private George Watson, MOH, was represented by James E. Gulfrey, the veteran rescued by Private Watson from the swirling waters as their troop ship sank after a Japanese attack. Private Watson drowned after rescuing several other soldiers.

1LT Baker explained his hard feelings at his eventual retirement from Ft Huachuca. After his enlistment, he—with many other African American soldiers—had been stationed at the post early in the war. Not long after his enlistment he was called into his commander’s office. The
commander informed Baker that he was to be sent to Officers Candidate School. Baker’s response to the commander was that he had no interest in going. His protest was ultimately to no avail. He received orders to report for OCS. Upon his return to Huachuca after his successful
completion of OCS, he said that his new rank resulted in none of his enlisted friends would speak to him.

Baker went on to say that he owed his life to the training that he had received at Ft Huachuca’s mountainous training areas, equipping him for what he would later encounter in the mountains of Italy in action against the Germans.

Baker’s hard feelings about America were occasioned by his return to Ft Huachuca after the war when Army regulations required that his rank for continued active service be downgraded to the equivalent enlisted rank. He finished his career at that rank, and rightfully retired at his commissioned grade held in combat.

The weekend celebration included two other Medal of Honor recipients, Lieutenant Colonel Jay Zeamer, Jr., USAF, Ret., MOH, and Captain William McGonagle, USN, Ret., MOH.

Capt. McGonagle’s award was exceptional—also linked to the political influences of the time—because his award was based on his actions during peacetime operations while in command of the USS Liberty in the Mediterranean. His ship was attacked by Israeli jets in 1967
during the Israeli 6 Day War.  While Israel belatedly apologized for the incident, the fact remained that the attack left 34 sailors killed with 171 wounded. Wounded himself, Captain McGonagle remained in command of the ship until help arrived.

As McGonagle told the story of his award, the usual procedure for the awarding of the MOH was to be done by the President at the White House.  Because McGonagle's award was politically sensitive—and because the President and VP were unavailable—the ceremony was rescheduled.  The Assistant Secretary of the Navy was designated to make the presentation at the Washington Naval Yard.  William Loren McGonagle – Captain, United States Navy.

President Clinton’s decision to award the MOH was to the following servicemen:

1LT Vernon J. Baker
SSG Edward A. Carter, Jr.
1LT John R. Fox
PFC Willy F. James, Jr.
SSG Ruben Rivers
Captain Charles I. Thomas
Pvt George Watson

The official website for the Medal of Honor lists all recipients with the award citation.

The poster contains the names and autographs of the attendees for the Buffalo Soldier Days 1-4 May 1997. The awardee or a family member or in one case, a survivor, signed the poster.

Tom Decker, a former USFS Smokejumper and almost a native of Idaho, was ordained into the Office of the Public Ministry and served Lutheran parishes in South Dakota before entering the US Army Chaplaincy at age 32 to serve both overseas and stateside. Upon retirement, he served a smaller congregation in North Long Beach where a community youth basketball program and community yard sales provided the backdrop for bringing the good news in an urban setting. His book, Dry Heat: Life and light on an Arizona Army Post, recalls ministry in the desert Southwest of Ft Huachuca. Tom Decker is a member of the USACCRA.