A symbol of sacrifice, the Medal of Honor history runs deep in Tennessee
With the exception of the War on Terror, a Tennessean has received it in every conflict since it was first created.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest military award for bravery. First presented in 1863, it’s been awarded 3,512 times to 3,493 recipients.
Ed Hooper is a Medal of Honor historian. “The one thing especially that most people don’t understand about the Medal of Honor is you cannot be following orders when you are eligible to receive it,” he said.
“If a commander tells you to go take a hill and you go take a hill, you don’t get the Medal of Honor for that. But, a battle is a very fluid situation and if you see something that can change the outcome of that battle, or at least save men, and you take that action without orders, that’s what qualifies or makes you eligible for the Medal of Honor.”
In the beginning, the Medal of Honor almost didn’t happen.
“America didn’t want medals. They didn’t want their soldiers to look like European soldiers, you know, with the medals that go from your pocket down to your belt. So there were no medals at all.”
It wasn’t until it was passed as a bill in 1863 that the Medal of Honor became official.
Its history in Tennessee runs deep. With the exception of the War on Terror, a Tennessean has received it in every conflict since it was first created.
“Of the most influential ones, I would say, would be Calvin Ward, who was a problematic recipient of the medal. He suffered from PTSD. When he died in 1968 in Morristown, they didn’t even know he was a Medal of Honor recipient. They went in and found him in a hotel and listed the cause of death as suicide and he had a cigar box next to the bed. They opened the cigar box and there was his Medal of Honor.”
There are 32 recipients from Tennessee.
“Troy McGill is another one. Trapped on Los Negros Island he had a wounded comrade. There were three of them in a bunker. So he had the one that wasn’t wounded, take the wounded man back and he got trapped on the runway. When they found him the next morning, he was surrounded by about 104 Japanese, dead. They got in and started doing the investigations and it looked like most of them were killed by hand-to-hand combat. I mean, it was a battle that had to have lasted all night. You see stuff like that and it’s just, it’s phenomenal. You know, what someone can do, especially in a situation where he pretty much knew he was dead... he wanted to take as many with him as possible, and he did,” said Hooper. I-40 from Watt Road to the North Carolina state line is set to be renamed the Troy McGill Medal of Honor Memorial Highway on May 10 at 8:30 a.m. at the East Tennessee Veterans Memorial.
And the first black recipient from Tennessee was First Sergeant George Jordan. When he died in 1904, no one knew where his medal was. More than a century later, Hooper helped track it down.
“He was born a slave and listed in the Army in 1866 when Andrew Johnson created the all-black units, and he went west and served in the 9th regiment of the Buffalo Soldiers... and he received the Medal of Honor. They tried to get him to put in for it twice because of his battlefield exploits against the Apache, which was incredible. And so, he finally received the Medal of Honor,” he said.
It took Hooper 20 years, but he found it in 2014.
“Everybody said his Medal of Honor was buried with him. From the Pentagon on down. That’s what they kept telling me ... and then lo and behold, we found it in 2014. It had been used as a Christmas decoration for years because it was shiny. Nobody had actually really looked at it. The ladies who bought it were two old school teachers,” he said.
Over the years the design of the medal has changed, but one thing always stays the same and that’s the meaning behind it.
“I always tell people, look, you can say what you want about the Department of Defense, but it is the one thing they always get right is the Medal of Honor,” he said.
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