The Medal of Honour is the highest and most prestigious award that can be given to American servicemen for distinguished service in the field of battle.
Since it was first given in 1863, the medal has been awarded only 3,517 times, 19 of which were double awards.
Today, the medal is given to any soldier who has distinguished themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.”
Many of the medals are awarded posthumously, either because they died in battle, or because so much time has passed before they were recognised for their acts.
The award is usually given to the individual by the president during a ceremony. Because it is given in the name of Congress, it has often been called the “Congressional Medal of Honour.”
In honour of National Medal of Honour Day on March 25, here are 13 stories of those who received the nation’s highest honour:
Jacob Parrott, Civil War
Private Jacob Parrot was the first person ever to be awarded the Medal of Honour. Parrot, along with six other Union soldiers, we awarded for their actions during the Great Locomotive Chase, also known as Andrews’ Raid, during the Civil War.
The raid saw 22 Union volunteers sneak behind enemy lines to Atlanta, steal a train, and ride up North to Chattanooga. Along the way, they cut telegraph lines, destroyed railroad tracks, and attempted to burn bridges.
The objective was to cut off Confederate-held Chattanooga from reinforcements as the Union Army would attack the city.
The raid ended in failure – some of the raiders were captured and executed, most of the damage was repaired quickly, and Union army postponed their attack on Chattanooga.
Despite the failure, the raiders who survived were hailed as heroes.
William Harvey Carney, Civil War
William Harvey Carney was the first African-American awarded the Medal of Honour. He was born a slave in Virginia, but eventually made his way to freedom in Massachusetts.
When the Union Army began accepting volunteers, he joined the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first African-American unit in organised by the northern states, though it was led by white officers.
The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, led by Robert Gould Shaw, was tasked with taking Fort Wagner, a beachhead fortification that guarded the southern approach to Charleston Harbour.
A previous attack on the fort failed, and the 54th was chosen for the next attempt. As the soldiers stormed the fort’s walls, the Union flag bearer was killed. Carney grabbed the flag and held it for the duration of the battle.
Carney, along with the rest of the 54th, was forced to retreat. Throughout the battle Carney never lost possession of the flag, despite suffering multiple injuries. “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!” he said after the battle.
Carney was awarded the Medal of Honour in 1900.
Mary Edwards Walker, Civil War
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker is the first and only female recipient of the Medal of Honour in US history. She was an abolitionist and medical doctor who tried to join the Union Army as a surgeon, but was unable to because she was a woman.
She declined to work as a nurse and instead accepted an unpaid volunteer position at military hospitals on the front line.
In 1863 she was finally allowed to work as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon,” and wore a modified uniform of her own designed that looked like a man’s.
During her service she “devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded, both in the field and hospitals.” She was captured by the Confederates, but released in a prisoner exchange.
Major Generals William T. Sherman and George H. Thomas both commended her for her service, and President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honour in 1865.
Her award was temporarily rescinded in 1917 after it was determined that it was “unwarranted” because of her status as a civilian. She refused to give her medal back and wore it every day until her death in 1919.
President Jimmy Carter reinstated Walker’s medal in 1977.
Thomas Custer, Civil War
Thomas Ward Custer was the first soldier to receive two Medals of Honour – both for actions in the Civil War.
His first medal was given to him for his actions at the Battle of Namozine Church. He led a cavalry charge over a barricade under fire, seized a Confederate flag, and took three officers and 11 soldiers prisoner.
Three days later, at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, Custer again seized a Confederate flag during a cavalry charge, but in a much more dramatic fashion.
After leaping over a barricade, Custer singlehandedly broke a Confederate line. In the confusion he found the Confederate flag-bearer and charged at him. The Confederate promptly shot Custer in the face, causing him to call back on his horse.
Custer regained his composure, killed the flag-bearer, and then presented the captured flag to his brother, Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer. He was ordered by his brother to report to the surgeon, and was placed under arrest when he ignored the order.
Thomas Custer would later die at the Battle of Little Bighorn, along with his two brothers in 1876.
Theodore Roosevelt, Spanish-American War
Theodore Roosevelt is the only president to have received the Medal of Honour, though he did so for actions prior to his term, and wasn’t actually awarded the medal until 2001.
Then a Colonel in the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, Roosevelt received his medal for his actions at the Battle of San Juan Hill. The charge on the hill had been stalled, and the commanding officer of the battle had ordered the soldiers to hole their position.
Upset at the lack of progress, Roosevelt managed to convince his superiors to send his unit, known as the Rough Riders, to assist the infantry in their assault.
Technically against orders, and “in total disregard for his personal safety, and accompanied by only four or five men” he led his unit in a charge up the hill. Roosevelt was the first American who made it to the Spanish trenches. The charge inspired other soldiers to follow, and the tide of the battle turned.
Roosevelt was nominated for the Medal of Honour during the war, but officials in the Army, upset over his disobedience and his new fame, blocked it. His nomination was finally confirmed in 2001 by President Bill Clinton.
Daniel Daly, Boxer Rebellion and the Banana Wars
Daniel Daly is one of only two Marines who received two Medals of Honour in two different conflicts. His first medal was awarded for his actions a the Battle of Peking (now called Beijing) during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.
After a pitched battle, then-private Daly’s unit managed to take the Tatar Wall. His unit then left to get reinforcements and supplies to reinforce the wall, leaving Daly alone to guard it.
The Boxers counter-attacked later that night, and Daly single-handedly held them off, killing or wounding about 200 of them.
Daly’s second Medal of Honour was awarded for his actions at the Battle of Fort Dipitie, during the occupation of Haiti as part of the Banana Wars.
In that engagement, Daly, now a Gunnery Sergeant, led a unit of some 35 Marines against an attack of 400 Cacos rebels. Not a single Marine died under his command during the battle.
Daly is also famous for reportedly yelling at his troops “Come on, you sons of b——, do you want to live forever?!” before charging German trenches during the Battle of Belleau Wood in World War I.
He was recommended for a third Medal of Honour after that battle, but was given the Navy Cross instead.
Audie Murphy, World War II
Audie Leon Murphy was one of the most decorated soldiers in World War II and American history. He was awarded every military combat award a US Army soldier could receive, and was also given French and Belgian awards for heroism.
Murphy’s Medal of Honour was awarded when he was just 19 years old, for his actions at the Colmar Pocket in December, 1945. Murphy and his unit were ordered to hold against a German counter-attack in the area.
After the Germans hit their M10 tank destroyer, causing it to burst into flames. Murphy ordered his troops to fall back. Alone, he covered their retreat and held off the Germans by mounting the burning tank’s .50 calibre machine gun and calling in artillery strikes.
His position was attacked on three sides by 6 tanks and waves of infantry. Wounded and out of ammunition, he returned to his company, refused medical treatment, and organised a successful counterattack.
He is credited with killing or wounding 50 Germans by himself. “For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate 2d Lt. Murphy, but he continued to hold his position,” his citation reads.
William D. Hawkins, World War II
William D. Hawkins was a US Marine who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honour for his actions at the Battle of Tarawa in 1943.
Hawkins, his platoon of 40 men, and other Marines were pinned down by a number of pyramid-shaped steel machine gun nests that were firing heavy machine gun rounds into them as they advanced on Betio Island.
Already wounded by shrapnel during his landing, Hawkins single-handedly took out six of the nests by crawling up to them and shooting the Japanese soldiers inside point blank. When he ran out of ammunition, he threw grenades and satchel charges in them.
After destroying a seventh nest he was wounded in the chest. A medic patched him up, and his superior told him to get on a first aid boat and leave.
He responded by yelling “I’m not doing it, sir! I came here to kill Japs, not go home!”
Hawkins was finally shot and killed while throwing a grenade into an eighth machine gun nest by a Japanese soldier.
Robert Sherrod, a Time correspondent who was at Tarawa wrote that “to say that his conduct was worthy of the highest traditions of the Marine Corps is like saying the Empire State building is moderately high.”
He recorded his last words were, “Boys, I sure hate to leave you like this.”
Daniel Inouye, World War II
Daniel Inouye was one of only seven US Senators to receive the Medal of Honour. He was awarded the medal for his actions during a battle in the vicinity of San Terenzo, Italy.
As a Japanese-American, Inouye was sent to the European theatre as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit made up mostly of second-generation Japanese-Americans (Japanese-Americans were not allowed to fight in the Pacific).
Inouye and his unit were tasked with attacking a part of the Gothic Line, a German defence line in Europe. As they attacked, German machine gunners opened fire, pinning them down.
Inouye was shot in the stomach as he attempted to advance, but ignored his wounds, even after being told of the severity of them. He destroyed two machine gun nests with grenades before collapsing from blood loss.
Inouye’s men distracted the third and final machine gun nest while he crawled toward it. As he was about to throw a grenade into it, a German grenade blew up, almost completely separating his right arm from his body.
Inouye’s grenade was“clenched in a fist that suddenly didn’t belong to me anymore.” He pried it out with his left hand, threw it into the nest, and shot at the remaining Germans with his Thompson submachine gun one-handed.
Inouye was originally awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, but it was upgraded to the Medal of Honour by President Bill Clinton in 2000.
Roy Benavidez, Vietnam
Roy Benevidez was a Master Sergeant in the Army Special Forces who was awarded the Medal of Honour for his actions in a firefight that has been called “Six Hours in hell.”
In April of 1968, an American unit was on patrol west of Loc Ninh, near the South Vietnamese-Cambodian border when they ran into a 1,000-man NVA infantry battalion.
Benevidez voluntarily boarded a helicopter to reinforce the unit, and was dropped into the fight for his life.
Benevidez ran to the pinned down unit after being dropped off. On the way, he was wounded in his right leg, face, and head. He took control of the soldiers, dragged half of the wounded to a Medvec helicopter, and then ran alongside the helicopter as it moved to pick up more wounded.
As Benevidez went back to secure classified documents from the body of a dead soldier, the helicopter’s pilot was mortally wounded, and the aircraft crashed.
Benevidez secured the documents, went back to the helicopter, and aided the wounded out of the overturned aircraft. He guided the men to a defensive position and called in airstrikes.
When another helicopter came, he ferried the wounded, killed one NVA soldier in hand-to-hand combat, and killed two others that were charging the helicopter from behind it.
After making sure all the wounded were on board, Benevidez collapsed, but was pulled onto the helicopter. Thinking he was dead, a doctor put him in a body bag and only stopped zipping it up when Benevidez spat in his face.
Benavidez sustained seven major gunshot wounds, had shrapnel in his head, scalp, shoulder, buttocks, feet, and legs, had both his arms slashed by a bayonet, and had a collapsed lung.
He was originally awarded the Distinguished Service Cross because his superiors thought he would die and wanted him to be awarded before his death.
In 1981, his award was upgraded to the Medal of Honour.
Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon, Somalia
Sergeant First Class Randy Shughart and Master Sergeant Gary Gordon, were two Delta Force snipers who were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honour for their actions in the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993.
Shughart and Gordon were part of Task Force Ranger, a multi-branch special forces team tasked with capturing Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid during the Somali Civil War.
During an operation to capture Aidid’s top lieutenants, two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by Somali militiamen. One of the Black Hawks, codenamed Super 64, was shot down while US forces were trying to secure the first crash site.
Shughart and Gordon, who had been providing overwatch from a different Black Hawk requested three times to be inserted to the crash site when they learned that there were no immediate forces in the area.
Their request was finally granted, and they established a perimeter with wounded pilot Michael Durant, who was the only person to survive the crash.
Shughart, Gordon, and Durant were attacked by a mob of militants. They held off the mob and killed an “undetermined number of attackers” before they ran out of ammunition and were overrun.
Shughart and Gordon fought until the moment they both died. Durant was taken prisoner by the militia, but they had saved him from certain death.
Jason Dunham, Iraq
Jason Dunham was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honour for sacrificing himself to save his fellow Marines during the Iraq War.
Dunham’s unit was conducting a patrol in Husaybah, Iraq, when a firefight erupted nearby. His unit was ordered to intercept cars in the area that had been spotted at the attack.
As Dunham approached a vehicle to search it, an insurgent jumped out and engaged him in hand-to-hand combat. After wrestling the insurgent to the ground, Dunham noticed that he had pulled the pin of a grenade and dropped it.
Dunham immediately, and “without hesitation … covered the grenade with his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast.”
Dunham was mortally wounded, but saved the lives of two Marines. He was evacuated to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland in a coma.
After it was determined he would not recover, he was taken off of life support, and died eight days later.
Dakota Meyer, Afghanistan
Dakota Meyer is a US Marine who was awarded the Medal of Honour for his actions at the Battle of Ganjgal on September 8, 2009, in Kunar Province, Afghanistan.
Meyer’s unit, along with some Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers set out to engage Taliban forces, and to protect anti-Taliban village elders in Ganjgal. The Marines were told that they would not have immediate close air support, but that there was artillery support in the area.
As soon as they arrived, the task force was ambushed on three sides by over 100 Taliban militants – more than were originally estimated by intelligence reports.
Calls for artillery support were denied for fear of civilian casualties, and nearby helicopters were taking fire at a different location.
Upon learning that four of his team members were cut off, Meyer and another Marine commandeered an ANA truck and, under intense enemy fire, drove to their location.
Meyer would end up up making five trips to and from the battle site. Manning the machine gun, he killed a number of militants, some at almost point blank range, disrupting the Taliban attack, and taking pressure off of friendly forces.
During the trips, he and his driver evacuated two dozen ANA soldiers, many of which were wounded, and provided cover for other US Marines and ANA troops pinned by the Taliban.
Meyer eventually dismounted his vehicle and, on foot, went to an area the cut off servicemen were expected to be. He found their bodies, and prevented their capture by beating a Taliban insurgent to death with a rock.
He was awarded the Medal of Honour two years later, on September 15, 2011.