People who serve their country make tremendous sacrifices. It’s not uncommon for the country to recognize their sacrifices with awards and other forms of recognition, such as the Purple Heart or military funerals as well as informal recognitions, such as famous eulogies and famous obituaries that highlight a soldier’s heroism.
However, many consider the Medal of Honor to be the highest form of recognition. Since 1863, presidents have given the Medal of Honor to members of the various armed forces who display extraordinary valor in combat against an enemy force.
That said, it’s also important to recognize those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Presidents may also award posthumous Medals of Honor. The following are a few posthumous Medal of Honor recipients from the country’s history.
1. Corporal Freddie Stowers, April 24, 1991
Corporal Freddie Stowers received a posthumous Medal of Honor for his service in World War I. You may be surprised that a president didn’t actually bestow him with this honor until decades later. This is actually a more common occurrence than you might think. In Stowers’ case, the reason is particularly noteworthy.
When Stowers served, the Army only had two African-American divisions. The 371st Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Division, in which Stowers served, was one of them.
Stowers proved his bravery leading an attack on Hill 188 during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. As he and his fellow soldiers approached the heavily-fortified area, German soldiers emerged from their trenches with their hands up, seemingly indicating surrender.
Unfortunately, this was a ruse. The Germans opened fire once Stowers and the others got closer. Despite this, Stowers continued to rush forward to take out the Germans’ defensive position, encouraging other soldiers to do the same when those who outranked him fell victim to the gunfire. Stowers even continued fighting after he was struck. His encouragement resulted in a successful attack for the American and French troops, although he would not survive it. He was 22 years old.
Decades later, in 1990, the U.S. Congress, noticing racial disparities among Medal of Honor recipients, requested the Army to look back at their records. The Army’s researchers discovered no African-American had ever received the Medal of Honor for his actions in World War I. Corporal Freddie Stowers became the first. President George H. W. Bush bestowed the posthumous Medal of Honor on April 24, 1991. Georgina and Mary, Stowers’ surviving sisters, accepted the honor on his behalf.
2. Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, October 22, 2007
Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy served as a United States Navy SEAL during the War in Afghanistan. On June 28, 2005, Murphy and three other SEALs were behind enemy lines on a reconnaissance mission at a high altitude.
Unfortunately, locals spotted the SEALs and alerted the Taliban. A militia consisting of more than 50 anti-coalition fighters attacked the outnumbered SEALs from three sides with a terrain advantage. The SEALs returned fire while scrambling down the mountain. The team’s communications petty officer was trying to find an open air space so the team could call for help, but a gunshot wound prevented him from doing so.
Murphy then took responsibility, placing himself in great danger by heading into an open-terrain area with little protection from the gunfire to place a distress call. Those who received the call say his voice remained calm and brave as he explained the team’s position. He even completed the call after an enemy combatant shot him in the back.
Unfortunately, Murphy and the other SEALs were killed before help could arrive, but his willingness to try to save his friends’ lives earned Murphy a posthumous Medal of Honor and a funeral with full military honors.
3. Airman First Class William H. Pitsenbarger, December 8, 2000
Airman First Class William H. Pitsenbarger also didn’t receive his Medal of Honor until years after his death.
On April 11, 1966, during the Vietnam War, Pitsenbarger was serving as a Pararescue Crew Member with Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron. He was on a rescue helicopter when he and his team received a request to evacuate casualties from a firefight between U.S. troops and enemy combatants 35 miles east of Saigon.
When the helicopter reached the destination but was unable to land anywhere, Pitsenbarger volunteered to put himself in immediate danger by riding a hoist from the helicopter down through the dense jungle, where he would be able to evacuate all nine of the wounded men. He also refused the offers to escort him to safety until he had saved all casualties and chose to remain behind and assist with medical care when another rescue helicopter received fire and had to leave to make an emergency landing.
Pitsenbarger lost his life fighting off the enemy and put himself in harm’s way to tend to other wounded soldiers. Those who knew of his efforts continued for years to provide testimony in support of his nomination for a posthumous Medal of Honor, which the nation eventually granted in 2008.
4. First Lieutenant Garlin Conner, June 26, 2018
It’s worth noting that not everyone who receives a posthumous Medal of Honor necessarily died in battle. Sometimes the nation may bestow the honor on someone who survived a war but will do so after a much-later death.
Such was the case for First Lieutenant Garlin Conner, who displayed immense bravery during World War I. Specifically, on January 24, 1945, Conner was with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division, near Houssen, France. German forces began to converge on their position that morning.
There was a very real possibility the German forces would overtake the entire battalion. Conner realized this and volunteered to head straight toward the enemy, aiming to put himself in the middle of their assault. Although this was extremely dangerous, Conner believed it was necessary, as it would allow him to find a position from which he could provide friendly artillery with directions that would improve their odds of striking enemy combatants.
Pulling off this maneuver involved running 400 yards through a vicious assault from enemy artillery, all while unspooling the telephone wire he would need to use to communicate with the battalion. He eventually found a suitable position and spent three hours directing numerous artillery fire missions. At one point, the German forces even got within five yards of his position, but thanks to Conner’s bravery, the German assault failed.
Conner initially received the Distinguished Service Cross and died back home in the U.S. in 1998. The Army recently reassessed his story, leading to the decision to upgrade this honor to a posthumous Medal of Honor.
5. Captain Ben Salomon, May 1, 2002
The story of Captain Ben Salomon is somewhat unique compared to other stories about posthumous Medal of Honor recipients. During WWII, he technically served as a medical officer. However, on July 6, 1944, while he was stationed with the 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division in Japan, the Japanese soldiers launched an aggressive assault on his battalion.
Tending to the wounded gave Salomon a clear understanding of how intense the fighting was. In fact, at some points during combat, Japanese soldiers actually made their way inside his medical tent, forcing him to fight them off.
This made him realize the best action he could take involved ordering his medical staff to move the wounded American troops as far away as possible. Salomon remained behind, helping the troops fight the combatants, and taking over a machine gun after the soldier originally manning it suffered fatal wounds. Unfortunately, Salomon would also die in the assault.
A technicality prevented Salomon from receiving his posthumous Medal of Honor until 2002. As a medical officer, he wasn’t eligible for the Medal of Honor, but numerous people recommended him for the award anyway, and Congress chose to make an exception. Congress also waived the time limit that would have normally prevented Salomon from receiving a Medal of Honor so long after his service.
Making the Ultimate Sacrifice
Again, there’s no reason those who died in battle shouldn’t be eligible for the highest military honor the country has. On the contrary, those who gave up their lives often deserve significant recognition for the sacrifices they made. That’s why the nation has a proud history of remembering their courage with posthumous Medals of Honor.
- Dorn, Samantha. “Captain Ben Salomon.” National Museum of the United States Army, The Army Historical Foundation, armyhistory.org/captain-ben-solomon/
- “First Lieutenant Garlin M. Conner.” Army.mil, The United States Army, www.army.mil/medalofhonor/conner/?from=features_bar
- “Garlin Murl Conner.” The Hall of Valor Project, Sightline Media Group, valor.militarytimes.com/hero/30595
- Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy (SEAL).” Navy.mil, U.S. Navy Office of Information, www.navy.mil/ah_online/moh/murphy.html
- “The Medal of Honor.” CMOH.org, Congressional Medal of Honor Society, www.cmohs.org/
- Patrick, Bethanne Kelly. “Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger: Profile.” Military.com, Military Advantage, www.military.com/history/airman-1st-class-william-h-pitsenbarger-profile.html
- “PITSENBARGER, WILLIAM H.” U.S. Air Force, The United States Air Force, www.af.mil/Medal-of-Honor/Pitsenbarger/
- “President Bush Presents Medal of Honor to Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, U.S. Navy.” The White House President George W. Bush Archives, The White House, 22 October 2007, georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2007/10/20071022-11.html
- “Remarks by President Trump at the Presentation of the Medal of Honor to First Lieutenant Garlin M. Conner, U.S.Army.” WhiteHouse.gov, The White House, 26 June 2018, www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-presentation-medal-honor-first-lieutenant-garlin-m-conner-u-s-army/
- Tollison Hartness, Courtney L. “The Story of Freddie Stowers, the First African American Recipient of the WWI Medal of Honor.” The United States World War I Centennial Commission, United States Foundation for the Commemoration of the World Wars, www.worldwar1centennial.org/index.php/articles-posts/5956-freddie-stowers-a-story-about-the-first-african-american-recipient-of-the-wwi-medal-of-honor.html