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Guest Commentary / March 25, 2021

Medal of Honor Recipients — Men That Match Our Mountains

I’d like to tell you a little about some of the lesser known heroes.

By Pat Nolan

Today is National Medal of Honor Day, a day set aside to honor the brave men who earned our highest military honor. Officially it is presented to “for members of the armed forces who distinguish themselves conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action involving actual conflict with an enemy.” That dry military language doesn’t begin to convey the bravery these men exhibited in the midst of fierce combat without a thought for their own safety. I will tell you a little about some of the remarkable feats of these true heroes.

Through unique circumstances I had occasion to work closely and become good friends with several CMOH recipients. I was a member of the California State Assembly and well known for my support for veterans. In early 1980 I was approached by several recipients of the Medal of Honor Society who lived in California. They asked me to sponsor legislation creating special license plates for all MOH recipients living in California. Thus began the most satisfying legislative effort of my time in the Assembly. It allowed me to become friends with several of these brave men and their wives. Some of them are famous, such as General Doolittle and Pappy Boyington. However, most of them are relatively unknown, which is quite sad.

I’d like to tell you a little about some of the lesser known heroes.

Dick O'Kane

Captain Richard O'Kane was awarded the Medal of Honor for commanding USS Tang in Pacific War against Japan to the most successful record of any United States submarine ever. In addition to the MOH he received three Navy Crosses and three Silver Stars, for a total of seven awards of the United States military’s three highest decorations for valor in combat. Before commanding Tang, O'Kane served in the highly successful USS Wahoo as executive officer and approach officer under noted Lieutenant Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton.

In five war patrols on the Tang, O'Kane was sank a total of 33 ships totaling 118,323 tons. This placed Tang first for both number of ships and tonnage. In his ten combat patrols, five in Wahoo and five commanding Tang, O'Kane participated in more successful attacks on Japanese shipping than any other submarine officer during the war. These sinkings cut off destroyed critical supplies to Japan hastening the end of the way.

As commanding officer of the U.S.S. Tang operating against 2 enemy Japanese convoys on 23 October and 24 October 1944, during her fifth and last war patrol, O'Kane boldly maneuvered on the surface into the midst of a heavily escorted convoy, CMDR O'Kane stood in the fusillade of bullets and shells from all directions to launch smashing hits on 3 tankers, coolly swung his ship to fire at a freighter and, in a split-second decision, shot out of the path of an onrushing transport, missing it by inches. Boxed in by blazing tankers, a freighter, transport, and several destroyers, he blasted 2 of the targets with his remaining torpedoes and, with pyrotechnics bursting on all sides, cleared the area. Twenty-four hours later, he again made contact with a heavily escorted convoy steaming to support the Leyte campaign with reinforcements and supplies and with crated planes piled high on each unit. In defiance of the enemy’s relentless fire, he closed the concentration of ships and in quick succession sent 2 torpedoes each into the first and second transports and an adjacent tanker, finding his mark with each torpedo in a series of violent explosions at less than 1,000-yard range. With ships bearing down from all sides, he charged the enemy at high speed, exploding the tanker in a burst of flame, smashing the transport dead in the water, and blasting the destroyer with a mighty roar which rocked the Tang from stem to stern. Expending his last 2 torpedoes into the remnants of a once powerful convoy.

O'Kane fired his 24th and last torpedo. The Tang was about to head back to the “barn”. Tragically, O'Kane watched in horror as this last torpedo breached and then circled back to slam into the stern of the Tang, exploding and tearing a huge hole in the sub, sinking it. (Defective torpedoes plagued the sub force throughout the war). The men on the bridge were thrown into the water, but their troubles were scarcely over. It was the middle of the night, and they had no flotation gear.

When morning came, only 9 of the 87 crewmen were still alive. Decades later tears welled up in O'Kane’s eyes as he told me of the brave men lost that day.

O'Kane and the handful of survivors were picked up by a Japanese destroyer and delivered to the notorious Omori prison camp where they were subjected to a life of starvation, torture, beatings, and slave labor at Yokohama. Submariners, Like aviators, were classified as “special prisoners of Japan,” secretly imprisoned in the foulest camps with their existence hidden from their families and the Red Cross.

O'Kane was singled out for particularly brutal torture due to his remarkable record in sinking Japanese ships. He was repeatedly forced to stand in the sun with a rifle over his head for hours at a time. Whenever his arms began to drop the sadistic camp commander would beat him across his back and put his cigarettes out on O'Kane’s neck and face.

Despite months of this extreme torture O'Kane never broke. As William Tuohy wrote in The Bravest Man, “Dick had provided leadership to his men in a difficult situation, vastly different to the one he had trained and worked in. He neither cracked under torture and the many beatings nor gave the Japanese vital information: Tang’s depth capability, a description of the night surface tactics he developed, or the existence of Ultra”. When O'Kane was rescued from the prison after 10 months in captivity he suffered from beriberi, jaundice, and weighed a mere 90 pounds.

One humorous anecdote Dick told me: Pappy Boyington was also in the Omori prison. As supplies were dropped on the camp from B-29’s they crashed all around the prisoners who ran for cover for fear of getting hit. Boyington ran out of the camp to a nearby air raid shelter, saying “After living through all I have, I’m damned if I’m going to be killed by being hit on the head by a case of peaches”.

James Taylor

His troop was engaged in an attack on a fortified position west of Que Son when it came under intense enemy recoilless rifle, mortar, and automatic weapons fire from an enemy strong point located immediately to its front. One armored cavalry assault vehicle was hit immediately by recoilless rifle fire and all 5 crewmembers were wounded. Aware that the stricken vehicle was in grave danger of exploding, Capt. Taylor rushed forward and personally extracted the wounded to safety despite the hail of enemy fire and exploding ammunition. Within minutes a second armored cavalry assault vehicle was hit by multiple recoilless rifle rounds. Despite the continuing intense enemy fire, Capt. Taylor moved forward on foot to rescue the wounded men from the burning vehicle and personally removed all the crewmen to the safety of a nearby dike. Moments later the vehicle exploded. As he was returning to his vehicle, a bursting mortar round painfully wounded Capt. Taylor, yet he valiantly returned to his vehicle to relocate the medical evacuation landing zone to an area closer to the front lines. As he was moving his vehicle, it came under machinegun fire from an enemy position not 50 yards away. Capt. Taylor engaged the position with his machinegun, killing the 3-man crew. Upon arrival at the new evacuation site, still another vehicle was struck. Once again Capt. Taylor rushed forward and pulled the wounded from the vehicle, loaded them aboard his vehicle, and returned them safely to the evacuation site. His actions of unsurpassed valor were a source of inspiration to his entire troop, contributed significantly to the success of the overall assault on the enemy position, and were directly responsible for saving the lives of a number of his fellow soldiers.

Edward “Mike” Michaels

While serving as pilot of a B17 on a heavy-bombardment mission to Germany, April 11, 1944. The group in which 1st Lt. Michael was flying was attacked by a swarm of fighters. His plane was singled out and the fighters pressed their attacks home recklessly, completely disregarding the Allied fighter escort and their own intense flak. His plane was riddled from nose to tail with exploding cannon shells and knocked out of formation, with a large number of German fighters following it down, blasting it with cannon fire as it descended.

A cannon shell exploded in the cockpit, wounded the copilot, wrecked the instruments, and blew out the side window. 1st Lt. Michael was seriously and painfully wounded in the right thigh. Hydraulic fluid filmed over the windshield making visibility impossible, and smoke filled the cockpit. The controls failed to respond, and 3,000 feet were lost before he succeeded in leveling off.

The radio operator informed him that the whole bomb bay was in flames as a result of the explosion of 3 cannon shells, which had ignited the incendiaries. With a full load of incendiaries in the bomb bay and a considerable gas load in the tanks, the danger of fire enveloping the plane and the tanks exploding seemed imminent. When the emergency release lever failed to function, 1st Lt. Michael at once gave the order to bail out and 7 of the crew left the plane.

Seeing the bombardier firing the navigator’s gun at the enemy planes, 1st Lt. Michael ordered him to bail out as the plane was liable to explode any minute. When the bombardier looked for his parachute he found that it had been riddled with 20mm. fragments and was useless. 1st Lt. Michael, seeing the ruined parachute, realized that if the plane was abandoned the bombardier would perish and decided that the only chance would be a crash landing. Completely disregarding his own painful and profusely bleeding wounds but thinking only of the safety of the remaining crewmembers, he gallantly evaded the enemy, using violent evasive action despite the battered condition of his plane.

After the plane had been under sustained enemy attack for fully 45 minutes, 1st Lt. Michael finally lost the persistent fighters in a cloud bank. Upon emerging, an accurate barrage of flak caused him to come down to treetop level where flak towers poured a continuous rain of fire on the plane. He continued into France, realizing that at any moment a crash landing might have to be attempted, but trying to get as far as possible to increase the escape possibilities if a safe landing could be achieved. 1st Lt. Michael flew the plane until he became exhausted from the loss of blood, which had formed on the floor in pools, and he lost consciousness. The copilot succeeded in reaching England and sighted an RAF field near the coast.

1st Lt. Michael finally regained consciousness and insisted upon taking over the controls to land the plane. The undercarriage was useless; the bomb bay doors were jammed open; the hydraulic system and altimeter were shot out. In addition, there was no airspeed indicator, the ball turret was jammed with the guns pointing downward, and the flaps would not respond. Without any hydrolics Michael had to fly the plane by brute force. Despite these apparently insurmountable obstacles, he landed the plane without mishap.

John Finn

On December 7, 1941 7:48 a.m. CPO John Finn was awakened by the sound of gunfire at Peral Harbor. He lived about a mile from the aircraft hangars where he was in charge of twenty men who maintained the weapons of VP-11, a PBY Catalina flying boat squadron. John jumped in his car and tore along the roads at reckless speeds while the Japanese planes above him were attacking his airbase. When he arrived most of the PBYs were already on fire.

Finn’s men were trying to fight back by using the machine guns mounted in the PBYs, firing from inside the flaming planes or by detaching the guns and mounting them on improvised stands. One of the first things Finn did was to take control of a machine gun from his squadron’s painter. “I said, ‘Alex, let me take that gun' …I knew that I had more experience firing a machine gun than a painter”.

Finn attached the .50 caliber machine gun to a training tripod and pushed the platform into the middle of the taxiway to get a clearer view of the attacking aircraft. For the next two hours he engaged the Japanese planes. “I was out there shooting the Jap planes and just every so often I was a target for some,” Finn said, “In some cases, I could see their [the Japanese pilots’] faces.”

He left his post only when he received a direct order to get medical treatment where he received minimal treatment. Despite his severe wounds, Finn returned to the hangars later that day to help arm the surviving American planes. He fired on Japanese planes for the next two hours. When it was over his left arm hung useless after a shoulder injury, a bullet fractured his foot, and his body was bleeding from a multitude of shrapnel wounds.

“I got shot in the left arm and shot in the left foot, broke the bone. I had shrapnel blows in my chest and belly and right elbow and right thumb. Some were just scratches. My scalp got cut, and everybody thought I was dying….I had 28, 29 holes in me that were bleeding,” he recalled for Beyond Glory.

Nine months later, Finn received the first Medal of Honor for World War II, the only combat Medal of Honor out of the 15 Medal recipients from the Pearl Harbor attack. Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, during the ceremony on USS Enterprise, remarked on Finn’s “magnificent courage in the face of almost certain death helped repel the Japanese attack…His complete disregard for his own life, in staying with his machine gun, although many times wounded, is the kind of American fighting spirit necessary to victory.”

Mitch Paige

During the campaign for Guadalcanal in October 1942, specifically the Battle for Henderson Field, Platoon Sergeant Paige was commanding a machine gun section. When the enemy broke through the line directly in front of his position, Paige, with fearless determination, continued to direct the fire of his gunners until all his men were either killed or wounded. Alone, against the deadly hail of Japanese shells, he manned his gun, and when it was destroyed, took over another, moving from gun to gun, never ceasing his withering fire against the advancing hordes until reinforcements finally arrived. Then, forming a new line, he dauntlessly and aggressively led a bayonet charge, driving the enemy back and preventing a break through in our lines.

Vernon Ehlers

After landing in the second wave on D-Day, he successfully led his squad inland and four days later near Goville, France, S/Sgt. Ehlers, always acting as the spearhead of the attack, repeatedly led his men against heavily defended enemy strong points exposing himself to deadly hostile fire whenever the situation required heroic and courageous leadership. Without waiting for an order, Ehlers, far ahead of his men, led his squad against a strongly defended enemy strong point, personally killing 4 of an enemy patrol who attacked him en route.

Then crawling forward under withering machinegun fire, he pounced upon the guncrew and put it out of action. Turning his attention to 2 mortars protected by the crossfire of 2 machineguns, S/Sgt. Ehlers led his men through this hail of bullets to kill or put to flight the enemy of the mortar section, killing 3 men himself.

After mopping up the mortar positions, he again advanced on a machinegun, his progress effectively covered by his squad. When he was almost on top of the gun he leaped to his feet and, although greatly outnumbered, he knocked out the position single-handed.

The next day, having advanced deep into enemy territory, the platoon of which S/Sgt. Ehlers was a member, finding itself in an untenable position as the enemy brought increased mortar, machinegun, and small arms fire to bear on it, was ordered to withdraw. S/Sgt. Ehlers, after his squad had covered the withdrawal of the remainder of the platoon, stood up and by continuous fire at the semicircle of enemy placements, diverted the bulk of the heavy hostile fire on himself, thus permitting the members of his own squad to withdraw. At this point, though wounded himself, he carried his wounded automatic rifleman to safety and then returned fearlessly over the shell-swept field to retrieve the automatic rifle which he was unable to carry previously. After having his wound treated, he refused to be evacuated, and returned to lead his squad.

Carlos Ogden

On the morning of June 25, 1944, near Fort du Roule, guarding the approaches to Cherbourg, France, Lt. Ogden’s company was pinned down by fire from a German 88-mm. gun and 2 machineguns. Arming himself with an M-1 rifle, a grenade launcher, and a number of rifle and hand grenades, he left his company in position and advanced alone, under fire, up the slope toward the enemy emplacements. Struck on the head and knocked down by a glancing machinegun bullet, Ogden, in spite of his painful wound and enemy fire from close range, continued up the hill. Reaching a vantage point, he silenced the 88mm. gun with a well-placed rifle grenade and then, with hand grenades, knocked out the 2 machineguns, again being painfully wounded. In part his citation read “Lt. Ogden’s heroic leadership and indomitable courage in alone silencing these enemy weapons inspired his men to greater effort and cleared the way for the company to continue the advance and reach its objectives.” I have to add Carlos was a lot of fun to hang out with.

Poet Sam Walter Foss wrote, “Bring me men to match my mountains”. These brave men, and tens of thousands more lived up to that motto and saved our Republic from tyrannies. From the men I know in our armed forces I think such warriors are there. Let us hope our leaders back them up with more than rhetoric.

Pat Nolan is the founder of the Center for Justice at the American Conservative Union Foundation, and for over 50 years has been a respected leader in the conservative movement.

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