Heroes and Medals

This past Sunday we celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I.  The following day was our Veterans Day holiday.  Let us take a brief moment to think of some of those heroes who served our nation so well.

On December 10, 1941, Captain Colin Kelly, B-17 pilot, took off from Clark Field in the Philippines to attack the Japanese fleet then threatening Luzon.  During a bombing run against Japanese ships, Colin’s plane managed to hit the Japanese cruiser Natori. As he attempted to return to Clark Field, Captain Kelly’s plane was engaged and severely damaged by Japanese fighters.  The pilot ordered his crew to bail-out, and moments later the B-17 exploded, taking Colin Kelly to his death.

News reports at that time credited Captain Kelly with sinking the Japanese battleship Haruna. Some unofficial accounts even suggested that he had deliberately crashed his flaming aircraft into the enemy ship.

Colin Kelly was proclaimed a national hero. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and subsequently a liberty ship, streets and highways, and schools were named in his honor.

Captain Colin Kelly was indeed a hero, and we as a nation should continue to honor his memory.  But the Colin Kelly incident reveals some interesting things about war, about heroes, and about medals for valor.

First, there is the axiom, “In war, truth is the first casualty.”  No one in America knew what was going on in the Philippines in December 1941.  Even our commanders in the area were fighting in a cloud of uncertainty. Did they really believe that Colin Kelly had sunk the Haruna, or was it wishful thinking?  America badly needed a hero at that time, and Colin Kelly fit the bill.  As it was later revealed, the Haruna was not even in the vicinity, and the cruiser Natori, which Kelly’s plane did hit, was only slightly damaged. I do not blame the military authorities for this misinformation. Flying two to four miles above the ocean, experiencing anti-aircraft fire and dodging enemy fighters, it is no wonder that our big bomber crews often misidentified enemy ships and gave wildly exaggerated damage reports. Our low flying dive bombers and torpedo planes were a bit more accurate in their reporting, but not so much. The Japanese were no better at it than we were.  Over the course of World War 2, Japanese after-action reports would indicate that they had sunk our entire Pacific fleet several times over.  Such is “The Fog of War.”

Second, there are many heroes.  Some of them get medals, most do not. A few men get medals they probably do not deserve.  When I think of great American heroes, I often think of the Doolittle raid and of our naval aviators at the Battle of Midway.

On April 18, 1942, eighty American flyers took off in sixteen medium bombers from the deck of the United States aircraft carrier Hornet. All these men were volunteers, and it was an incredibly daring mission.  It was a one-way trip.  These planes could not return and land on the Hornet, and even the take-off was very difficult.  Except for a brief pre-raid trial run, no bomber of that size had taken off from an American aircraft carrier before.  Once airborne, the planes were to fly to Japan, bomb targets in several Japanese cities, and then fly on to mainland China.  Their hope was to land at an airfield in eastern China, refuel, and then fly on the Chunking. Unfortunately, the planes were forced to take off from the Hornet prematurely, so making it all the way to China was immediately in doubt.

The raid was a spectacular success. There was relatively little damage to Japanese war production facilities, but the attack sent a shock wave through the Japanese Empire, and it goaded their military into certain poorly conceived and ill-planned countermeasures.  Furthermore, the attack was a tremendous boost to the morale of the American people.  Up until this time there had been nothing but defeat and retreat in the Pacific.

Certainly, the eighty men who flew from the Hornet that day performed a mission far beyond the call of duty.  They had flown into the heart of the dragon in lightly armed aircraft and without fighter escort. They dropped their bombs and then managed to escape, flying on toward the coast of mainland China. As they approached China, fuel began to run out.  Fifteen bombers either crash-landed or fell to earth after their crews bailed out. One plane landed in Vladivostok, a city in Soviet Russia. Fortuitously, only three men were killed in the crash landings, although there were other injuries, and eight Americans were captured by the Japanese.  Three of those captured were executed for supposed war crimes, and the other five captives were subjected to brutal treatment and near starvation in a POW camp.

All eighty participants in the raid were awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.  Their commander, Lt. Col. James Doolittle, received the Medal of Honor. No group of heroes deserved these honors more.

Less than two months later, American naval forces engaged in one of the greatest sea battles in world history.  Spurred in part by alarm over the Doolittle Raid, the Japanese determined to eliminate the remnants of America’s Pacific Fleet.  Massive numbers of Japanese ships bore down on the islands of Midway.  In the van of the attack were four large fleet carriers, each carrying a full complement of superb aircraft and highly trained and battle tested flyers. They had an unblemished battle record and were supremely confident of victory.  Opposing them were the three available carriers of the Pacific Fleet and planes of the Midway garrison. The American flyers had little or no combat experience, and many of them were handicapped with obsolescent planes.  At the climax of battle, three America torpedo squadrons attacked the Japanese carriers. The Hornet squadron struck first, and all fifteen of its lumbering airplanes were obliterated by Japanese fighter planes or anti-aircraft fire.  The Enterprise squadron came next, and ten of its fourteen aircraft were destroyed.  Finally, the Yorktown planes arrived, and ten of the twelve followed their brother flyers into the sea.  Thirty-five torpedo planes and most of their crews had been lost, and there was not a single hit on a Japanese ship. But the heroic sacrifice of these American aviators was not in vain.  Their determined attack brought the defending Japanese fighter planes down to low level, and when the American dive bombers arrived a few minutes later they were almost unopposed.  Three of the Japanese carriers were quickly turned into burning hulks, and the fourth carrier was destroyed later in the day.

The heroic men who manned those torpedo bombers, both pilots and gunners, should never be forgotten.  The pilots were awarded the Navy Cross, nearly all them posthumously.  Other awards were also given, but we can never honor these men enough for their bravery.  Indeed, they needed the words of a poet like Tennyson to give them their proper due, but there were few poets in the Pacific in 1942.

Third, to receive a medal, a hero needs a witness and a good writer. Many men and women perform deeds of valor that go unseen and unrewarded. Those heroes that are seen may or may not receive a medal.  At one time I had the privilege of serving in a high military headquarters where I reviewed hundreds of write-ups for the Medal of Honor and other awards.  I concluded that when a heroic deed is observed and written about, it is critical that the person recommending an award has a flair for the English language and knows how to apply a modest amount of hyperbole. Obviously, excessive praise might be counterproductive, but a small degree of exaggeration is sometimes required to gain the prize. But heroes deserve it. Thousands upon thousands of brave men and women have bled and died serving our nation, and they have earned every honor they receive.

May God bless all our heroes, known and unknown.  

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