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News > President Lincoln signs ‘Medal of Honor’ legislation
President Lincoln signs ‘Medal of Honor’ legislation

Posted 1/11/2013   Updated 1/11/2013 Email story   Print story


by Arlan Ponder
49th Wing Public Affairs

1/11/2013 - HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE -- As America celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, many around the country are learning of President Abraham Lincoln's legendary actions to preserve the Union and end slavery. However, it was his action in July 1862 that makes him historic in the military ranks.

The story begins in December 1861, when Iowa Senator James Grimes introduced a bill designed to "promote the efficiency of the Navy" by authorizing the production and distribution of "medals of honor." The bill passed and was signed. However, in February 1862 Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson introduced a similar bill which authorized the President "to distribute medals to privates in the Army of the United States who shall distinguish themselves in battle."

During the next five months as the bill made its way through Congress, various resolutions changed the wording. When President Lincoln signed Senate Joint Resolution No. 82 on July 12, 1862, the Army Medal of Honor was born.

To date, 3,458 medals have been awarded to servicemen with a lone service woman receiving the Medal of Honor. Nineteen men have two medals for separate actions while five have received both the Navy and Army medals.

The first Army Medal of Honor was awarded to Pvt. Jacob Parrott in 1863 for actions during the Civil War. The only female to receive the medal was the first female surgeon in the U.S. Army, Mary Edwards Walker, for her contributions to the war effort during the Civil War. In 2010, the last Medal of Honor recipient was Specialist Four Leslie H. Sabo Jr. for his actions in Se San, Cambodia on May 10, 1970.

One recipient of the Medal of Honor during World War II is the 49th Wing's own Maj. Richard (Dick) Bong. Major Bong is known throughout the Air Force today as the "Ace of Aces" having shot down 40 Japanese airplanes while assigned to the 9th Fighter Squadron.

"Dick never got shot up when I flew his wing," said 49th Wing Ace Maj. Ralph "Iron Pants" Wandrey during a visit to Holloman in 2006. "I could stay with him when he flew, many others couldn't."

During an acceptance flight of a P-80A, Major Bong was killed when he ejected too low as the plane crashed. Today his portrait hangs in the foyer of the 49th Wing headquarters building and a replica of the Army Medal of Honor he received sits under glass nearby.

Since the formation of the Air Force in September 1947, 18 Airmen have received the award - four from the Korean War and 14 from the Vietnam War.

The first Air Force member to receive the award was Maj. Louis Sebille for his actions in a damaged F-51 aircraft during the Korean War. The last recipient was Chief Master Sgt. Richard "Etch" Etchberger in 2010 for his actions at a top-secret advanced radar site on Phou Pha Thi Mountain in Laos.

Although originally authorized in 1956, it took the Air Force nine years before it unveiled its version of the Medal of Honor in 1965. Almost 50 percent larger than the other services' medals, the Air Force version retained the laurel wreath and oak leaves of the Army version. It also retained the bar bearing the word "VALOR". Inside the circle of stars the helmeted profile of Minerva from the Army's medal is replaced by the head of the Statue of Liberty. Replacing the Army's eagle is the Air Force Coat of Arms. Prior to the Air Force designing its own medal, Army Air Corps and Air Force recipients were awarded the Army version.

The first Airman to receive the Air Force's newly designed Medal of Honor was Maj. Bernard Francis Fisher for his actions in 1966 at Bien Hoa and Pleiku, Vietnam, during the Vietnam War.

The first enlisted man to receive the Medal of Honor was Airman 1st Class John Levitow for his actions in the Vietnam War. When the medal was awarded to Levitow he was a sergeant. His citation read: "Sgt. Levitow's gallantry, his profound concern for his fellowmen, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country."

The only other enlisted Air Force member to ever receive the Medal of Honor was Airman 1st Class William (Bill) Pitsenbarger. During the Vietnam War, Airman Pitsenbarger, a pararescueman, exposed himself to almost certain death as he volunteered to ride a hoist more than 100 feet through the jungle canopy to the ground.

"There was only one man on the ground that day that would have turned down a ride out of that hellhole -- and that man was Pitsenbarger," said F. David Peters, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division.

Only 21 years old when he was killed in action, his dedication, especially on his final mission, embodied the pararescueman's motto: "That Others May Live."

When President George W. Bush presented his first Medal of Honor in 2001, he said, "General Eisenhower once observed that when you hear a Medal of Honor citation, you practically assume that the man in question didn't make it out alive. In fact, about 1 in 6 never did, and the other five ... probably didn't expect to."

In all, 627 recipients had their medals presented posthumously with 79 recipients still living today.

One currently living recipient is New Mexico resident and Army Ranger, Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, who received his award in 2011 for actions during combat operations in the eastern Afghan province of Paktia in May 2008. During this event, Petry lost his hand while attempting to throw a grenade away from two other wounded Army Rangers. He is only the second living active-duty service member to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.

President George W. Bush said, "Citations are also written in the most simple of language, needing no embellishment or techniques of rhetoric. They record places and names and events that describe themselves. The medal itself bears only one word and needs only one, valor."

(Information for this story provided by the 49th Wing History Office and the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website.)

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