War puts ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, regardless of their background and pathway into the armed services. Tales of heroism and bravery at all levels are not uncommon in wartime. Reactive instincts to protect those around you are omnipresent during combat, but there’s a particular kind of courage history doesn’t forget.
The most prestigious recognition for bravery a member of the United States’ Armed Services can receive is the Congressional Medal of Honor (MoH), and its official citation includes “the highest U.S. military decoration… for gallantry and bravery in combat at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” Every MoH is approved and awarded by Congress and presented to the recipient by the sitting president. Medal of Honor winners are American war heroes, those responsible for the bravest acts imaginable.
It’s been 153 years since the very first Medal of Honor was received during the Civil War, and since then, there have been a total of 3,498 MoHs awarded out of the many, many millions of servicemen and women. In 2010, an Army Staff Sergeant became the first living MoH recipient in nearly 40 years, which goes to show that most are awarded posthumously. Below is a (short) list of Medal of Honor recipients whose acts were so brazen and insane that the rest of us will only ever read about them... with goosebumps.
The first and only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, Dr. Walker volunteered for the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War, working as a field surgeon.
Walker provided much-needed medical assistance to the local civilian populace, as well as to assist Confederate Army field surgeons. These were solo ventures, since the men she served with repeatedly refused to accompany her out of fear of death and/or certain capture. After all, the modern articles of the Geneva Convention wouldn’t exist for another 88 years.
Walker remained undeterred,and continually assisted both sides during the Civil War, with complete disregard for her own safety. In 1864, after staying behind to attend to a patient, she was arrested as a spy by Confederate forces and held as a prisoner of war for longer than four months. After the war, President Andrew Johnson awarded Dr. Mary Walker the Medal of Honor.
The command structures of Army and Marines combat infantry units have been molded and perfected for generations. In the chaos of combat, the chain-of-command, and the training under it, is perhaps the only thing infantrymen can truly rely on. But what happens when that structure collapses after being targeted by the enemy? Well, something like that actually happened to Jake Allex in France on August 9, 1918.
During an already intense firefight, all the officers in Allex’s platoon became casualties in quick succession after his platoon came into range of a German machine gun nest. Instead of wasting invaluable time trying to figure out who should take command, Allex leapt into action. He advanced some 30 yards toward the nest, alone, exposed, and under heavy fire, and attacked the enemy gunners so fiercely he ran out of ammunition.
After that, Allex relied on a bayonet alone, which he used to kill five enemy soldiers before it snapped. He then used his rifle butt to subdue the rest of the nest, resulting in the capture of 15 prisoners, all by himself.
The use of trenches in WWI flipped the traditional notion that high ground in combat has the advantage on its head. The area between opposing trenches was called no man’s land for a reason. It usually took a force of overwhelming numbers to advance on and capture enemy trenches. In this environment, William Turner and a small group of men found themselves separated from the rest of their company when German machine guns opened fire on them.
Turner single-handedly rushed the machine gun with only his pistol, eliminating the gunners and taking the position. He immediately advanced to another enemy position some twenty-five yards away, just as the rest of his small detachment reached him. Although Turner was wounded three times, he continued to lead the charge over three successive enemy trenches. After running out of ammunition for his pistol, he engaged in hand-to-hand combat, before grabbing a rifle from a fallen enemy soldier.
After running out of ammo again, Turner successfully charged yet another machine gun emplacement, using only his bayonet. He led the small group of men to resist a fierce counterattack until Turner was finally surrounded and killed in action. William Turner was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
No man’s land, September 29, 1918. Alan Eggers and John Latham are trapped with Thomas O’Shea in an artillery crater behind enemy lines, after getting separated from their platoon after a smoke barrage. That’s when they hear Americans calling for help from a disabled tank nearby. "Nearby" being about thirty yards away in no man’s land. In broad daylight, the three soldiers left the relative safety of their crater and made their way to the tank under attack from trench mortars and German machine guns. O’Shea was mortally wounded, but Eggers and Latham continued undeterred.
Eggers and Latham rescued three wounded Americans from the tank and helped them to cover in a nearby trench. They then again braved German fire to return to the tank and dismount its Hotchkiss gun, to give them a fighting chance for survival. The Hotchkiss gun was the Allies’ standard heavy machine gun in WWI.
Together, Eggers and Latham lugged the gun back to the trench with the wounded men, and, by employing effective fire, were able to keep the enemy at bay for the remainder of the day. Under cover of darkness, they helped the wounded men escape to the frontline, while still toting the Hotchkiss gun to keep it out of enemy hands. All three men from the tank survived.