President Lincoln creates 'Medal of Honor'

  • Published
  • By Arlan Ponder
  • 49th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States and his actions to preserve the Union and end slavery before his assassination in 1865 are legendary. However, it is his action in July 1862 that made him historic in the Army Air Corps (eventually Air Force) 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, more than 3,465 medals have been award to 3,446 different service men 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. The last Medal of Honor recipient was Pfc. Ross A. McGinnis in 2008 for his actions in Adhamiyah, Northeast Baghdad, Iraq.

Since the formation of the Air Force in September 1947, 17 Airmen have received the award - four from the Korean War and 13 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.

Major Sebille's citiation reads: "Although fully cognizant of the short period he could remain airborne, he deliberately ignored the possibility of survival by abandoning the aircraft or by crash landing, and continued his attack against the enemy forces threatening the security of friendly ground troops. In his determination to inflict maximum damage upon the enemy, Major Sebille again exposed himself to the intense fire of enemy gun batteries and dived on the target to his death."

Originally authorized in 1956, it took nine years before the Air Force unveiled its version of the Medal of Honor in 1965. Almost 50 percent larger than the other service's 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 First 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, 618 recipients had their medals presented posthumously with 528 being awarded since World War II.

One recipient of the Medal of Honor during World War II is the 49th Fighter 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.

His citation states, "For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty in the Southwest Pacific area from 10 October to 15 November 1944. Though assigned to duty as gunnery instructor and neither required nor expected to perform combat duty, Maj. Bong voluntarily and at his own urgent request engaged in repeated combat missions, including unusually hazardous sorties over Balikpapan, Borneo, and in the Leyte area of the Philippines. His aggressiveness and daring resulted in his shooting down eight enemy airplanes during this period."

"Dick never got shot up when I flew his wing," said Maj. Ralph "Iron Pants" 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 to low as the plane crashed. Today his portrait hangs in the foyer of the 49th Fighter Wing headquarters building and a replica of the Army Medal of Honor he received sits under glass nearby.

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." 

Army Air Corps and Air Force recipients are: World War I - 2nd Lt. Edwin R. Bleckley, killed in action; 2nd Lt. Harold E. Goettler, killed in action; 2nd Lt. Frank Luke Jr., killed in action; and Capt. Edward V. Rickenbacker, died 1973.

World War II - Lt. Col. Addison E. Baker, killed in action; Maj. Richard I. Bong, died in accident; Maj. Horace S. Carswell Jr., killed in action; Brig. Gen. Frederick W. Castle, killed in action; Maj. Ralph Cheli, died as POW; Col. Demas T. Craw, killed in action; Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, died 1993; Master Sgt. Henry E. Erwin; 2nd Lt. Robert E. Femoyer, killed in action; 1st Lt. Donald J. Gott, killed in action; Maj. Pierpont M. Hamilton, died 1982; Lt. Col. James H. Howard, died 1995; 2nd Lt. Lloyd H. Hughes, killed in action; Maj. John L. Jerstad, killed in action; Col. Leon W. Johnson; Col. John R. Kane; Col. Neel E. Kearby, killed in action; 2nd Lt. David R. Kingsley, killed in action; 1st Lt. Raymond L. Knight, killed in action; 1st Lt. William R. Lawley Jr.; Capt. Darrell R. Lindsey, killed in action; Staff Sgt. Archibald Mathies, killed in action; 1st Lt. Jack W. Mathis, killed in action; Maj. Thomas B. McGuire Jr., killed in action; 2nd Lt. William E. Metzger Jr., killed in action; 1st Lt. Edward S. Michael, died in 1994; 2nd Lt. John C. Morgan, died 1991; Capt. Harl Pease Jr., killed in action; 1st Lt. Donald D. Pucket, killed in action; 2nd Lt. Joseph R. Sarnoski, killed in action; Maj. William A. Shomo, died 1990; Sgt. Maynard H. Smith, died 1984; 2nd Lt. Walter E. Truemper, killed in action; Lt. Col. Leon R. Vance Jr., lost at sea, 1944; Technical Sgt. Forrest L. Vosler, died 1992; Brig. Gen. Kenneth N. Walker, killed in action; Maj. Raymond H. Wilkins, killed in action; and Maj. Jay Zeamer Jr.

Korean War - Maj. George A. Davis, killed in action; Maj. Charles J. Loring, killed in action; Maj. Louis J. Sebille, killed in action; and Capt. John S. Walmsley, killed in action.

Vietnam War - Capt. Steven L. Bennett, killed in action; Col. George E. Day; Maj. Merlyn H. Dethlefsen, died 1987; Maj. Bernard F. Fisher.1st Lt. James P. Fleming; Lt. Col Joe M. Jackson; Col. William A. Jones III, died 1969 in accident; Airman 1st Class John L. Levitow; Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger, killed in action; Capt. Lance P. Sijan, died while POW, 1968; Lt. Col. Leo K. Thorsness; Capt. Hilliard A. Wilbanks, killed in action; and Capt. Gerald O. Young, died 1990.

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