Today — as with each Memorial Day — there’s a somber feeling as we pause to acknowledge the sacrifices of the men and women who’ve served in our armed forces, especially those who paid the ultimate price in defending the flag many of us proudly display.
At 3 p.m. each Memorial Day, there is a moment of remembrance for our fallen comrades, and you may even see some veterans today sporting red poppies on their lapels to acknowledge those who died defending the freedoms many so blithely take for granted.
This day of military remembrance certainly belongs to all who’ve served. It is also serves as a particularly appropriate day to focus on those individuals awarded the nation’s highest military honor — recipients of the Medal of Honor.
At the Allen County Museum, there are large displays for two Medal of Honor recipients from Lima —Leonard Mason and William Metzger — in addition to an impressive display of photos and capsulized stories of Medal of Honor recipients along with what is called the Roll of Honor, which lists the names of every one of the honored.
The stories are captivating, noted Larry Huffman Jr., a member on the Allen County Historical Society’s Board of Trustees and himself a former Marine who gave three years of service to his country following his 1971 graduation from Lima Central Catholic, Huffman was first drawn to the Medal of Honor and those who’ve received it several years ago when he purchased a two-volume set on the history of the medal and the stories behind the recipients.
He spent countless hours researching the stories that comprise the Roll of Honor.
“Each of these individuals who received Medals of Honor met the standard of their bestowments, which is, ‘conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy above and beyond the call of duty’,” Huffman said.
As for the inception of the Medal of Honor, it originated during President Abraham Lincoln’s administration in 1862. Of the 3,506 Medals of Honor awarded over these past 158 years, a full 40 percent were awarded to those who fought in the Civil War, including the only female to be awarded, Mary Edwards Walker, a field surgeon who, after volunteering for the Union Army, worked behind enemy lines treating the wounded. She was captured, spent time as a POW and eventually released as part of a prisoner exchange.
Of the recipients, 19 actually were awarded two Medals of Honor. The first of those, according to Huffman, was Thomas Ward Custer, and if that last name sounds familiar, it should because he was George Armstrong Custer’s younger brother. Each was awarded when the younger Custer captured Confederate flags and took prisoners.
As far as the youngest recipient, that would be Willie Johnston, a Civil War drummer boy for the 3rd Vermont Infantry, who, at the age of eleven enlisted with his father and kept his drum beating throughout the Seven Days Battles, a series of seven battles on consecutive days near Richmond, Virginia, between troops commanded by the North’s George McClellan and the South’s Robert E. Lee.
Recalls Huffman, “It was Lincoln himself who recommended the then 13-year-old Johnston for a Medal of Honor.
In the movies
Over the years, Hollywood has on occasion found the lives of Medal of Honor recipients as worthy subjects for biopics. In 1941, Gary Cooper delivered an Oscar-winning performance as Alvin York in Sergeant York, which told the story of the Tennessean that became one of World War I’s most decorated soldiers.
There were actually three conscientious objectors who’ve received Medals of Honor, and one of them — Desmond Doss — was the principal character in the 2016 release Hacksaw Ridge. Doss, the Lynchburg, Virginia native, could have received a deferment after being drafted in 1942, since he worked at a shipyard in Newport News, but he wanted to serve his country without bearing arms.
Doss became a medic and shipped out with the 77th, known as The Statue of Liberty Division, bound for the Pacific Theater. After intense fighting in Guam and in the Philippines, the 77th was then called upon to join the Allied invasion of Okinawa, where Doss singlehandedly saved 75 men.
The most recent movie to feature a Medal of Honor winner was the 2019 release, The Last Full Measure, which traces its origin less than 50 miles south of Lima. The movie tells the story of Piqua native William Pitsenbarger, an Air Force para-rescuer with almost 300 missions during the Viet Nam War, the last of which cost him his life while helping the wounded in a jungle 35 miles east of Saigon after a North Vietnamese Army ambush.
The movie not only shows Pitsenbarger’s heroism but also chronicles the fight to award Pitsenbarger the Medal of Honor, promoted in large part by those whose lives he saved. It was an award finally and justly bestowed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 2000 some 34 years after the Piqua native’s death.
Huffman points out there are actually four Medal of Honor recipients geographically even closer than Piqua’s Pitsenbarger — two from Kenton, less than 30 miles east of Lima — and Mason and Metzger from Lima itself.
First from Kenton
Kenton’s Jacob Parrott actually holds the distinction as the very first Medal of Honor winner when he received his honor from Secretary of War William Stanton in 1863. The bestowment was for valor demonstrated during the Civil War. Parrott was one of two dozen men who took part in what historians have dubbed the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862, which saw the men steal a Confederate locomotive just outside of Marietta, Georgia, with their mission being to drive the locomotive north, destroying track, burning bridges and cutting telegraph lines. They were eventually captured and imprisoned with some being executed.
Recalls Huffman, who is arguably the area’s preeminent historian of Medal of Honor recipients, “Parrott was taken prisoner and endured frequent beatings but refused to talk. He was eventually one of six captured that were exchanged for Confederate prisoners. A majority of the two dozen men were also awarded Medals of Honor for their bravery. As for why Parrott was the very first recipient, it was only because he was the youngest of all those who took part in that mission.”
The other Kenton Medal of Honor recipient was Delano Morey, who during his Civil War service with Company B, 82nd Ohio Infantry, charged into battle despite the fact that his rifle-musket was empty and captured two Confederate sharpshooters.
As for Lima’s own Medal of Honor recipients, unlike Parrott and Morey, who both survived to receive their awards, Leonard Mason and William Metzger both were awarded posthumously.
Recalling Mason, Huffman says, “Although born in Middleboro, Kentucky, he lived here in Lima after the family moved. As a matter of fact, the family home still stands on South Union Street.”
Mason, a World War II enlisted Marine, during the landing on Guam in July of 1944, despite being mortally wounded, cleared out hostile positions against heavy machine gun fire, allowing his platoon’s mission success. Mason killed five of the enemy, wounded another and actually made it back to report the result of his efforts before succumbing from his sustained wounds.
William Metzger was born and raised in Lima. Following his graduation from Central High School, he enlisted in the Air Force. During a bombing run over Saarbruchen, Germany, co-pilot Metzger and pilot Donald Gott’s plane sustained heavy damage and crew members were wounded. With but one working engine, Metzger and Gott completed the mission before while on return to the base attempted a crash landing before the plane exploded. Both Metzger and Gott were posthumously awarded Medals of Honor. East of Lima, at Metzger Reservoir, just last November a new memorial for William Metzger was dedicated.
Huffman has spent countless hours researching the stories behind the bravest of the brave best. The significance of today’s holiday is found in all of the above stories, he points out.
As for the recipients of the Medal of Honor, he notes: “Quite simply, they are the templates of the best we could possibly be, and each and every one of the 3,506 are national treasures, treasures we rightfully honor along with all who served on this most special of holidays.”
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and author of two books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.