3 Tales of Courage: The Stories Behind Medal of Honor Winners

Introduction

Medal of Honor is the highest honor a soldier can receive in the United States for extremely extraordinary service. In fact, most recipients only get it after they died, and they usually do it to protect fellow soldiers in desperate times.

Here are three of those stories, in no particular order...


Ben Salomon, in his pre-war civilian garb, probably USC graduation schoolbook photo
Ben Salomon, in his pre-war civilian garb, probably USC graduation schoolbook photo | Source
A markersaipan -
Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands
[get directions]

The Dentist Hero

Ben Salomon was about as far from a hero as you may expect. Born in 1914 in the state of Wisconsin, Ben graduated from USC School of Dentistry in 1937, and had a dental practice before he was drafted by the US Army in 1940. One look at him, and the army chose to use his medical expertise rather than his fighting expertise. I mean, look at him! Who'd expect a bespectacled Jewish boy to be a hero? Really?

Ben rose through the ranks through hard work and had gained the rank of Captain by 1944 and was posted to the island of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, where the US troops were trying to dislodge the Japanese defenders as a part of the Pacific island hopping campaign to eventually invade Japan itself. Ben was the regimental dental officer (i.e. head dentist) even though he was fully trained as a doctor. When the regimental surgeon was wounded while working at the aid station and had to be evacuated, Ben volunteered to take his place.

On July 7, 1944, Japanese defenders mounted a full counter-attack, and fighting was very heavy. Dozens of casualties flooded the aid station. Then a full banzai charge broke through the US defensive lines. The Japanese soldiers killed every American they see, whether they were fighting or not. If you're not Japanese, you will be killed, even if you're lying there, wounded, with no weapons.

Ben was treating the wounded at a front-line aid station (only 50 yards behind the frontline) when a Japanese soldier charged through the entrance and stabbed a wounded soldier. Captain Salomon drew his pistol and shot him down. As he turned back to his treatment of wounded, two more charged through the entrance, only to be shot dead by the Captain as well. When four more Japanese soldiers showed up, Captain Salomon charged them, kicked the knife out of one attacker's hand, according to eyewitness reports, and shot the man dead, then proceed to shoot another soldier and attacked the two remaining with hand-to-hand combat which allowed another wounded soldier to shoot and kill the attackers.

Captain Salomon knew the position is lost, and he ordered everybody who can move to move back to the regimental aid station well away from the frontline. However, somebody had to hold the line... and he volunteered to stay behind. He grabbed a rifle from a wounded soldier, and proceed to find his way to a machine gun position that still had a few American soldiers defending. However, one after another they were killed, and Captain Salomon was alone manning the machine gun position, and that's the last any one saw him alive.

When the US forces retook the area several days later, they found Captain Salomon slumped over the machine gun. Captain Salomon's body has at least 76 bullet wounds and multiple bayonet wounds. Surgeons estimate that at least 24 bullet wounds happened while he was alive. In front of him they counted NINETY-EIGHT dead Japanese soldiers.

Captain Salomon's commanding officer recommended him for medal of honor. However, the commanding general did not agree. Apparently it is not "appropriate" for a doctor, esp. one wearing the red cross, to be a soldier and kill enemy soldiers, even to defend his patients, and esp. not for using a machine gun. Apparently it was not appropriate to give medal of honor to a Jewish man at the time either. The request was denied.

Over the next fifty years, the recommendation was submitted again... and again... and again, and again. Until finally in 2002 it was approved. So Captain Salomon's story can now be fully appreciated by all. Currently, his medal is on display at USC School of Dentistry, his alma mater. His bravery at time of crisis has received the highest award from a grateful nation.

Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans, Commander USS Johnston
Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans, Commander USS Johnston | Source
USS Johnston, DD-557
USS Johnston, DD-557 | Source
A markerleyte gulf -
Leyte Gulf, Philippines
[get directions]

The Cherokee Hero

Lieutenant Commander Ernest Evans was 3/4 Cherokee from Oklahoma, but the sea called to him, and he joined the US Navy, and eventually rose to be skipper of USS Johnston, a destroyer.

On October 25, 1944, USS Johnston, along with 2 other destroyers and 4 destroyer escorts (even smaller than a destroyer), had the job of escorting 6 escort carriers, which are supporting General MacArthur's forces at Leyte. It should have been a simple job, as Admiral Halsey, with his much larger fleet and real fleet carriers, was supposed to be guarding the Leyte Gulf's entrance.

Unfortunately, Admiral Halsey chose to take his fleet to chase after Japanese carrier fleet, which had been sent to act as a decoy and lure him away.

Even MORE unfortunately for the Americans, a second Japanese fleet, which was comprised of four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, AND eleven destroyers, is heading straight to Leyte... and this tiny little American fleet is in its way. One of the battleships in the formation was the IJN Yamato, the largest battleship in the world, mounting the largest battleship gun in the world: 18.1 inch guns.

The little carriers were never fast ships. They were converted from cargo ships, and they cannot escape. Yet to stay and fight is suicide. The American destroyers have 5 inch guns, which would not even penetrate the armor of the battleships. The Japanese fleet has 18 inch guns, 16 inch guns, 14 inch guns, 8 inch guns, 6 inch guns...

The only way to save the ground forces and the escort carriers would be for the destroyers to somehow drive off a VASTLY more powerful fleet. It'd be like a mouse charging an elephant.

LtCmdr Evans ordered USS Johnston to charge the Japanese fleet at flank speed.

The weather is lousy, squalls and showers limited visibility in certain spots.

Admiral Sprague, commander of the escort carriers, ordered his escort carriers to flank speed to both get away from the Japanese fleet, but also to launch every plane that can fly to attack the Japanese fleet. The other two destroyers followed USS Johnston a little later.

The Japanese admiral sent his cruisers and some of his destroyers after the escort carriers. USS johnston charged them at flank speed of over 30 knots, but nothing's faster than cannon rounds. Water sprouts started appearing around USS Johnston, all calibers, big guns, small guns, as the Japanese fleet shot EVERYTHING at it, but somehow none hit until USS Johnston came pulled into range of her 5 inch guns, and she proceed to shoot up every Japanese warship she can reach. She deliberately aimed at the superstructure of the ships, where ships are not that heavily armored. She also launched a spread of torpedoes, severely wounding one of the heavy cruisers. Another heavy cruiser dropped out of the chase to assist her wounded sister.

When USS Johnston was finally hit, she did not try to get away, but instead, started generating a smokescreen for itself and other destroyers which just came into range. Then the planes from the escort carriers started to attack various Japanese ships, causing huge confusion and damage.

USS Johnston then engaged a squadron of destroyers that got a bit too close to the lagging escort carrier, forcing the leader and second ship to turn with heavy and accurate fire. Unfortunately, this also meant that she's a huge target, and she had already been hit in the engines, reducing her speed to half.

USS Johnston, by this time, is out of torpedoes and almost out of ammo. She had been firing continuously and expended virtually all ammo. She had chased off cruisers and destroyers intent on attacking the escort carriers, and had engaged almost every ship in the Japanese fleet and damaged several. However, LtCmdr Evans ordered every last bit of ammo, even the starshells (illumination rounds) and training sandbag rounds fired off as well.

By this time, USS Johnston was surrounded by 3 larger Japanese destroyers, who were turning the poor ship into swiss cheese. When all ammo was expended, LtCmdr Evans, already heavily wounded, gave the order to abandon ship.

Five out of the six escort carriers managed to escape from the Japanese fleet. One had suffered engine problems and was lost when the cruisers that got past the USS Johnston concentrated on it. The destroyer escorts attacked the cruisers that got too close and bought time for the escort carriers to get away. All of the American destroyers and destroyer escorts were severely damaged or sunk. Only 1 destroyer and 3 destroyer escorts remained afloat. Most of the escort carriers suffered damage, and some had even fired their own 5 inch guns at enemy ships, one of the few instances where carriers engaged enemy warships in direct gunnery battle. One of the survivors, USS St. Lo, was lost to kamikaze attack hours later.

When USS Johnston finally rolled over and sank, one Japanese destroyer captain was observed by the survivors to be saluting the sinking ship. The Japanese admiral in command of the fleet, confused and tired from the engagement, with sightings of other carriers in the area, and his fleet spread out in the gulf chasing after various targets, decided that it is too dangerous to continue the attack, and ordered the fleet to retreat. The little "tin can" destroyers had done the impossible: they engaged a vastly superior force and forced it to withdraw, but at an extremely heavy cost.

Out 300+ crew of USS Johnston, less than half survived. LtCmdr Evans was not among the survivors pulled from the water when US Naval rescue ships arrived days later.

For his bravery in leading the charge that ultimately resulted in saving General MacArthur's ground forces on Leyte from the attack by a vastly superior Japanese fleet, LtCmdr Evans was awarded the medal of honor, posthumously.


PFC Kenneth Michael Kays, 1949-1991.
PFC Kenneth Michael Kays, 1949-1991. | Source

The Anti-War Hero

Kenneth Michael Kays is about as anti-war as you will find in the US before and during the Vietnam War. He grew up in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, son of a World War II veteran, and lived a very ordinary life until the Vietnam war. When he refused to serve in the military, he fled to Canada like many young men of his generation. However, changing policy in the army and special plea from his father compelled him to return to the US. The Army guaranteed conscientious objectors that they will not have to hold guns. They will be trained as medics instead. Thus, Kenny Kays became a private in the US Army. After training, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, aka the "Screaming Eagles", to a little stretch of land in Vietnam that went by name of "Fire Support Base Maureen" to serve as combat medic, or "doc", for Delta Company.

On May 7th, 1970, a large force of VC and NVA, both infantry and sappers (armed with explosives) assaulted base Maureen with withering amount of firepower. "Doc" Kays maneuvered himself and treated the wounded in the midst of chaos, administering first aid, morphine, and whatever else was needed, dragging wounded back to aid station (technically it's just a stretch of empty space), and so on.

Then he was hit, maybe by an exploding mortar round, maybe by a sapper's satchel charge. He lost his left leg below the knee. He slapped a tourniquet on himself to control the bleeding, and continued to crawl through the mud and continued to treat the wounded, even dragging a few back to relative safety, while missing one of his legs.

But "Doc" Kays was not done. When the combat subsided somewhat, he crawled out of the company controlled perimeter, found more wounded Americans, treated them, and dragged them back to "safety", while he himself was bleeding to death, suffering from severe blood loss.

Only when relief forces arrived did he allow other medics to treat his wounds, and evacuate him to a real hospital.

For his heroism, Kenneth Kays was quickly nominated for Medal of Honor, and promoted to private first class. He served out his enlistment requirement, and left the army quietly. He was invited to the White House by president Nixon where he was awarded his Medal of Honor. By then he was long-haired and bearded like a hippie, and most of his platoon mates didn't even recognize him.

Unfortunately, Kenneth Kays did not have a happy life after this. "Kenny" suffered heavily from PTSD, a poorly understood phenomenon then, and drifted in and out of psychiatric care. He went home to live with his parents, neither of whom were in good health. He tried to self-medicate with illegal drugs and alcohol, which only served to get him into trouble with the law. His mother died in 1981, of suicide from a long lingering illness. His father took his own life in 1985 after what may have been a heated argument and poor health. Kenny Kays lasted until 1991, when the Iraq War started, when he reportedly told one neighbor that he can't go on, and killed himself over Thanksgiving holiday.

Conclusion

America's highest military honor is not always about killing, but rather, extraordinary display of bravery, under enemy attack, to save others.

I hope you have enjoyed learning about these heroes and their extraordinary service to America, and I hope to bring you stories of more heroes in the future.

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Comments 2 comments

old albion profile image

old albion 3 years ago from Lancashire. England.

Hi KS. I am humbled to read the exploits of these men. Men who were able to stand and deliver. Each story a heart breaking experience. I wonder whether recognition was ever given to the crew of the USS Johnston for they also fought to the death. Well done a first class hub.

voted up and all.

Graham.


kschang profile image

kschang 3 years ago from San Francisco, CA, USA Author

USS Johnston was given a presidential unit citation, which applies to all members of the crew. Actually, every ship in Taffy 3 (all the escort carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts) got one.

http://destroyerhistory.org/fletcherclass/ussjohns...

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