- On March 18, 2014, President Barack Obama awarded 24 Army veterans with Medals of Honour in a single ceremony.
- The unusual event honored veterans of World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War who had previously been overlooked for the nation’s highest military award for valor.
- A 12-year congressional review of service records found dozens of awards had been overlooked or denied due to racial or ethnic discrimination.
- Obama awarded 21 medals posthumously, and three to living recipients Melvin Morris, Jose Rodela, and Santiago Erevia.
On March 18, 2014, in one of the longest ceremonies of its kind, 24 Army veterans received the Medal of Honour for actions during their service in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
12 years earlier, Congress began a review of Jewish and Hispanic Americans’ war records, finding that dozens had been overlooked or denied the nation’s highest military award for valor due to discrimination.
“No nation is perfect,” President Obama said at the ceremony. “But here in America, we confront our imperfections and face a sometimes painful past, including the truth that some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal.”
Three living veterans were honored at the ceremony, and 21 were honored posthumously for their heroic actions. These are their stories.
Spc. 4th Class Leonard Alvarado sacrificed his own life in the dense jungles of Vietnam: ‘His actions in the face of the enemy were always extraordinary.’
With nothing but his M60 machine gun, Spc. Alvarado faced barrages of enemy gunfire, grenades, and satchel charges to provide cover as his unit aided another platoon in the jungles of Phuoc Long Province, Vietnam.
Steve Koppenhoefer, Alvarado’s platoon leader, told Stars and Stripes the specialist was an extraordinary yet intimidating figure on the battlefield. He died from wounds sustained during the battle and was originally awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest award for bravery in combat.
Alvarado’s award was upgraded to the Medal of Honour to reflect his sacrifice. Read the full citation.
Cpl. Joe Baldonado drew enemy fire towards his own position to protect his comrades.
Cpl. Baldonado stayed in an exposed position for some three hours to defend his platoon from waves of enemy attacks near Kangdong, Korea.
3rd Squad, 2nd Platoon, Company B, 187th Airbone Infantry Regiment was ordered to defend Hill 171 against enemy efforts to take control of their position. Attacking forces concentrated their fire on Baldonado’s position, eventually retreating.
Baldonado was killed by a grenade that exploded near his position. To date, his remains have not been recovered.
5-foot-3 Pvt. Pedro Cano crawled with a rocket launcher through heavily mined areas to confront German soldiers — and somehow survived the ordeal.
Between December 2 and 3, 1944, Pvt. Pedro Cano killed nearly 30 enemy soldiers near Schevenhutte, Germany.
Cano crawled through a mined area with a rocket launcher, firing rockets and tossing grenades into enemy positions as close as 10 yards away. The next day, he crawled through heavy enemy fire, again destroying numerous enemy positions.
Cano, born in Mexico in 1920, became a US citizen in 1946.
Staff Sgt. Felix Conde-Falcon leapt across rooftops to clear a fortified enemy bunker in Vietnam.
While advancing through dense forest in Ap Tan Hoa, Vietnam, Staff Sgt. Conde-Falcon’s unit encountered an enemy battalion command post.
“A platoon had stumbled into something unexpected, and the fight was hotter than Hades,” Les Hays, a radio telephone operator who served with Conde-Falcon, told the Fayetteville Observer.
Ordered to clear the facility, Conde-Falcon charged ahead of his unit, dropping grenades as he jumped across rooftops. After returning to his unit, he then took a machine gun to assault another fortification. When he ran out of ammunition, he took up an M16 rifle and charged again. He was mortally wounded within 10 meters of his goal.
Spc. 4th Class Ardie Copas, 19, climbed into a burning vehicle so his wounded comrades could be evacuated.
Spc. Copas’ armoured vehicle was hit with enemy fire near Ph Romeas Hek, Cambodia, in 1970.
Spc. Fourth Class Jesus Duran fired from the hip — literally — to protect wounded comrades from enemy fire.
Spc. 4th Class Jesus Duran was born in Juarez, Mexico, in 1948.
21 years later, he defended two seriously injured comrades in Vietnam with an M60 machine gun against a barrage of enemy fire. Duran withstood grenade blasts and gunfire while eliminating enemy fighters in their foxholes.
He was originally awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for bravery in combat.
Spc. 4th Class Santiago Erevia, one of only three living recipients awarded during the ceremony, charged his enemy with an M16 in each hand.
Remembered as a quiet hero, Erevia died at age 70 in 2016.
In Tam Ky, Vietnam in the spring of 1969, the man lauded as a humble servant crawled in plain view of enemy forces, gathering grenades and ammunition before taking an M16 rifle in each hand as he charged enemy forces to protect wounded comrades.
Erevia moved between enemy positions, holding live grenades before dropping them into bunkers. According to his citation, when he ran out of grenades he “silenced” the occupants of the final bunker “at point blank range.”
23-year-old Cpl. Victor Espinoza single handedly took out an enemy machine gun, two bunkers, and a covert tunnel during the Battle of Old Baldy.
Cpl. Espinoza left his secure position armed with a rifle and grenades, running through enemy fire to destroy a machine gun and its crew. He continued, destroying a mortar position and two enemy bunkers.
He then discovered and summarily destroyed a covert enemy tunnel, using explosives after running out of grenades and ammunition.
Espinoza survived the war and received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. He died in 1986; President Obama posthumously upgraded his award to the Medal of Honour.
Pvt. Joe Gandara sacrificed himself to save his unit, which had been pinned down for four hours during the invasion of Normandy.
Three days after his company landed on the beach of Normandy, Pvt. Joe Gandara sacrificed his life to save his pinned-down unit near Amfreville, France.
The 20-year-old from California rushed into enemy fire, destroying three machine gun positions before he was killed.
His unit had been pinned down for over four hours.
Sgt. Candelario Garcia destroyed 2 bunkers, rescued casualties and enabled his unit to overrun enemy positions.
Sgt. Garcia and his unit discovered a line of communications wire leading into the jungle of Lai Khe, Vietnam.
When his unit came under intense fire, Garcia charged ahead, destroying two enemy bunkers and rescuing multiple casualties before returning to his unit.
Sgt. 1st Class Eduardo Gomez climbed on top of a tank, then ignored withdrawal orders to keep firing at his enemies despite his own injuries.
In the summer of 1950 in Tabu-dong, South Korea, Sgt. 1st Class Gomez and his unit were surrounded by an enemy tank and machine guns.
Gomez crawled across a rice field, climbed aboard the tank, opened a turret hatch and dropped in a grenade.
Wounded while returning to his unit, he refused to withdraw. Instead, he grabbed a .30-calibre machine gun, firing as he advanced toward the enemy. Ignoring his previous wound as well as hand burns from the overheating weapon, Gomez stood his ground while his company gained defensive positions.
He died in 1972 at the age of 52.
Pfc. Leonard Kravitz died while providing covering fire so his unit could safely withdraw.
Pfc. Leonard Kravitz died in March 1951 near Yangpyong, Korea, while protecting his withdrawing unit.
Kravitz volunteered to man a machine gun while his unit retreated, reportedly telling them to “get the hell out of here while you can.”
The Daily Beast reported his body was later found slumped over his machine gun surrounded by the bodies of enemy fighters.
He died with only six bullets left in his weapon.
Over the course of two days, Pfc. Salvador Lara forced 15 Germans to surrender and neutralized several machine gun positions in Aprilia, Italy, during World War II.
On the first day, Lara’s actions saved two units, including his own, from an entrenched enemy when he attacked the German position, killing four and forcing 15 others to surrender.
The next day, Lara was severely injured in the leg before crawling toward enemy machine gun positions. Armed with only his rifle, Lara charged the Germans, neutralising two guns and their crews and forcing two other crews to flee.
He died less than a year later of unknown causes.
Pfc. William Leonard, his back riddled with bullets, led his platoon to achieve their objectives in St. Die, France during World War II.
Pfc. Leonard was one of only eight surviving members of his platoon after a German barrage of artillery, mortars, machine guns and rifles.
Suffering from bullet wounds in his back and recovering from a stunning bazooka shell explosion, Leonard led his men forward, wiping out machine guns and ultimately capturing their objective.
Leonard survived the war; he died at age 71 in 1985.
When Germans attacked his hill on Mt. Battaglia, Italy, Staff Sgt. Manuel Mendoza used every weapon he could get his hands on to defend it.
The “Arizona Kid” faced down enemies carrying machine guns, rifles, grenades, and even a flame thrower, to defend his unit.
First with a Thompson sub-machine gun, then later with a carbine, pistol, machine gun, hand grenades, and stopping to collect discarded German weapons, Mendoza’s “gallant stand” secured the hill and resulted in thirty enemies killed.
He survived both World War II and the Korean War.
One of the first men to don a green beret, Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris braved enemy fire and was wounded three times while he destroyed four enemy bunkers — all to recover the body of a fallen comrade.
In September 1969, Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris, one of the first men to ever wear the Army’s green beret, charged through blistering enemy fire, destroying four enemy bunkers with grenades before reaching his ultimate target: a fallen comrade whose body he then pulled to a friendly position.
Morris was wounded so badly during the attempt that he eventually had to be medically evacuated.
But he survived, and lived to receive his Medal of Honour from President Obama – nearly 45 years later.
Sgt. Juan Negron remained in an exposed position through the night so his unit could launch a counterattack against enemy fighters in Kalma-Eri, North Korea.
The Puerto Rico native refused to give up his position despite an onslaught of enemy forces.
As the enemy advanced, Sgt. Negron used hand grenades to keep them at bay while friendly forces launched a counter-attack. The next morning, the bodies of 15 enemies surrounded his position.
Negron served for 23 years, rising to the rank of master sergeant.
Sgt. Alfred Nietzel sacrificed his life while protecting three comrades as they returned to their company command post.
In the face of overwhelming enemy fire and recognising the need for reinforcements, Sgt. Nietzel ordered his squad into retreat.
But he stayed, spraying his machine gun to offer covering fire for his troops. When he ran out of ammunition, he continued the fight with his rifle until he was killed by an exploding grenade.
Master Sgt. Mike Pena led his men in a counterattack to regain their lost position, where he held the line after ordering his unit into retreat.
Master Sgt. Pena enlisted as an Army infantrymen when he was just 16 years old.
He survived World War II, but died while providing covering fire for his unit as they withdrew from an overrun position in Waegwan, South Korea, in September 1950.
His platoon was the last to defend against an enemy assault. When it became clear that their dwindling supply of ammunition would be no match against the enemy’s overwhelming numbers, he ordered his men into retreat while he lay down covering fire through the night, sacrificing his own life in the process.
Pvt. Demensio Rivera, after expending all his ammunition, held an activated grenade in his hand until the enemy drew close enough to release it.
Under cover of a thick fog in Changyong-ni, South Korea, enemy forces crept forward, closing in on 2nd Platoon, Company G, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division.
They sprang, launching a vicious assault on Pvt. Demensio Rivera and his unit. Rivera responded swiftly, using his rifle, a pistol, and grenades and even tangled with the enemy in a bout of hand-t0-hand combat.
Realising he had just one grenade left, Rivera pulled the pin and waited until more enemies approached. He dropped the grenade at his own feet; the next morning, friendly forces found Rivera, miraculously still alive, surrounded by enemy dead.
Sgt. 1st Class Jose Rodela fought for 18 hours through intense rocket and mortar fire to organise his unit’s defences.
Sgt. 1st Class Jose Rodela was in charge of training a platoon of Cambodian fighters during the Vietnam War.
Rodela organised his men into defensive positions as they came under intense enemy fire. Manoeuvring between posts, Rodela provided suppressive fire and assisted his wounded men.
In an interview with the San Antonio Express-News in 2014, Rodela detailed some of his experience.
“I was trying to recover my people; they were being shot by the machine gun. They kept interfering,” he said in the interview. “I had to shoot them.”
Rodela was one of three living recipients to be honored during the ceremony.
Near Lure, France, during World War II, Germans abandoned their posts when they saw 1st Lt. Donald Schwab run up to one of their emplacements, knock a German in the head with the butt of his carbine, then drag him across a field swept with enemy fire to friendly lines.
Before conducting his one-man assault, 1st Lt. Schwab led his men through three separate attacks, pausing to take cover under intense barrages of German fire.
He moved along his own skirmish line, organising evacuation of the wounded. Rallying his troops one last time, they came within 50 yards of German forces. From there, amid withering fire, he ran alone to a German position that caused several casualties to his own company. His citation reads:
“Silhouetted through the mist and rain by enemy flares, he charged to the German emplacement, ripped the half-cover off the hostile firing pit, struck the German gunner on the head with his carbine butt and dragged the German back through a hail of fire to friendly lines.”
At this point, the Germans decided to withdraw, and Schwab was able to tend to his unit’s casualties.
In September 1952, Pvt. Miguel Vera volunteered to stay behind to provide covering fire as his company withdrew to safety.
The young soldier had already been wounded in a previous battle when he departed the aid station to protect his comrades.
As the enemy concentrated their fire on his position, Pvt. Vera’s decision ensured his troops could safely withdraw. When they returned the next morning, according to his citation, they found his body in the same position they left him in.
Originally buried in his native Puerto Rico, Vera’s body is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Sgt. Jack Weinstein halted an enemy attack by single-handedly holding his withdrawing platoon’s position until another unit was able to relieve him.
When they were attacked in the afternoon of September 19, 1951, many of Sgt. Jack Weinstein’s comrades were suffering from previously inflicted wounds.
Weinstein remained in his position as his unit withdrew, picking up enemy grenades from the ground after depleting his rifle’s ammunition. Though his leg had been broken and old wounds reopened during the endeavour, Weinstein’s efforts ensured his men could safely withdraw.
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