Medal of Honor recipients convene in Louisville
By Chris Kenning - The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
Posted : Monday Sep 26, 2011 7:15:12 EDT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The moment came for Wilburn Ross in 1944, when he spent five desperate hours in France using a machine gun to single-handedly repel waves of attacks by elite German mountain troops.
And this week, they will be here for the 2011 Congressional Medal of Honor Society Convention, a rare gathering held for the first time in the city for many of the nation’s bravest soldiers. It comes as the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the award.
“It’s good for me and all the guys to get together,” said Ross, a former Kentucky coal miner who lives in Washington state.
Starting Wednesday, more than 50 Medal of Honor recipients and their families will be here for five days of school visits, receptions, a public “walk of heroes” and an awards dinner.
It’s a chance to foster what Littrell said is a strong brotherhood among those who have received an award that carries lasting acclaim but also a heavy burden that often includes haunting memories and survivor’s guilt.
“None of us feel we deserve the medal,” said Littrell, who lives in Florida. “We had a job to do.”
According to the military, Medals of Honor “are awarded sparingly and are bestowed only to the bravest of the brave.” More than 3,465 medals have been awarded since it was first authorized in 1861.
In all, 56 medals are accredited to Kentucky, but just five recipients are still living, including Jenkins, of Quality, Ky., who declined to be interviewed.
According to his citation, Jenkins earned his medal for attacking an enemy bunker and then dragging several wounded men to safety amid fierce gunfire, even after a comrade had lost his life trying to rescue the same man who lay a few meters from the enemy.
Here are the stories of the other four:
The convention comes two weeks after President Barack Obama presented the award to Kentucky’s most recent recipient, Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer, ushering in a wave of national news coverage and appearances on television shows, sporting events and parades.
“It’s been crazy. I’ve been going constantly,” said Meyer, 23. “It’s tough. Everybody wants to know about the worst day of your life.”
In 2006, when Dakota was a 17-year-old senior, one of his mentors, instructor Tana Rattliff, said she spotted him at a Subway talking to a military recruiter. With no idea of what he wanted to study in college, she decided it might help him find direction, despite the dangers.
“I really don’t want you to go to war,” she recalled telling Meyer, but she agreed with him that it could be a “ wise decision.”
By 2009, Meyer, then a corporal, had already completed a tour in Iraq and was serving with the Marines in Ganjgal Valley of Afghanistan, according to military officials. On Sept. 8, he and a handful of other Marines were accompanying an Afghan army unit for a pre-dawn meeting with Ganjgal village elders.
Meyer stayed at an observation area while other U.S. and Afghan troops went to the village. But as dawn lit the sky, the patrol was ambushed by more than 50 enemy fighters firing rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine guns from the slopes above, according to his citation.
As calls for U.S. artillery or air support went unheeded, Meyer jumped into a Humvee, driven by another Marine, and drove into the kill zone to rescue the men.
With Meyer firing a vehicle-mounted machine gun, they made repeated trips into the area, pulling out wounded Afghan soldiers as bullets and rockets peppered their vehicle, leaving Meyer wounded in an arm.
He said he has recently started a scholarship program in his name for the children of wounded veterans. Much like his heroics, he downplays his role in it.
“I just felt like it was what I needed to do,” he said.
Littrell, now 67, said a commander, anticipating the survivor’s guilt and overwhelming honors that would follow his Medal of Honor, once told him that it can almost feel as hard to wear the medal as it was to earn it.
But earning it still ranks as the most intense four days of his life for Littrell.
In 1970, Sgt. Littrell was one of four Army soldiers advising a South Vietnamese ranger unit. At 24, he was considered the unit’s “old man.” In early April that year, he was marching through the choking jungle of South Vietnam’s Kontum Province to back up a special forces group, he recalled.
On the way, they camped on a hilltop. But they only had one foxhole dug when Littrell heard the mortars started flying.
“I heard mortar rounds leave the tube. Thump. Thump. Thump. I said, ‘Oh, my God,’ “ Littrell said, remembering the sounds that signified that they’d stumbled onto an enemy force, which he later learned numbered about 5,500.
Pinned down and surrounded — and with all his U.S. colleagues dead or wounded — Littrell and the South Vietnamese endured four days and nights of shelling. Littrell kept the group from being overrun by calling in air strikes on a battered radio.
According to his citation, Littrell “exhibited near superhuman endurance as he single-handedly bolstered the besieged battalion.”
On the fourth day, the North Vietnamese troops were beaten back by airstrikes far enough to allow Littrell and 41 wounded to escape.
Ernie West was drafted to fight in Korea at 19.
In 1952, then-Pvt. West and his unit were near Sateri, Korea. Trenches and sandbagged bunkers dotted the area. West was spending his nights going on patrols and trying to sleep in freezing temperatures,. he said.
One cold October night, West and seven others on the patrol had just begun climbing a hill in the dark forest when he stopped to remark on the eerie quiet.
Suddenly, they saw grenades rolling downhill toward his unit. When they exploded, several of the men were seriously wounded, including West.
“I got blowed up in the air 6 or 8 foot,” he said. “And I lost an eye and had shrapnel all up my back.”
West raced downhill for cover but saw several wounded men on the hill, including his commander. Despite his injuries, and the bullets flying and grenades exploding, he went back up and carried his commander to safety as he fired at three attackers.
West retrieved two more comrades from the hill, killing a handful of enemy soldiers in the process.
“We all made a pact — we don’t leave nobody. That’s just the way it was,” he said.
Two hundred miles south of Wurtland, Wilburn Ross grew up in Sterns, deep in the Appalachian Mountains. He began working the coal mines when he turned 18.
When World War II began, he went to weld ships in Norfolk, Va. That’s when he got what he called “an invitation from the Department of Defense” — a draft notice for the Army.
By October 1944, after nearly 500 days of fighting, he was in St. Jacques, France. His company had lost 55 of 88 men in an attack on a full-strength company of elite German troops. Then the Germans began counter-attacking.
With gunfire striking the ground all around him, Ross used his light machine gun to repel the attack, nearly single-handedly holding off six more German attacks, according to the U.S. military.
Ignoring an order to withdraw and bolstered by the arrival of more ammunition just as the enemy was about to swarm over him, he killed 40 Germans and wounded 10 in their final attack, heading off what would have been a decisive breakthrough, according to military accounts. He stayed at his post all that night and the next day.
Ross said he received his medal at the stadium in Nuremberg where Hitler had held massive Nazi rallies.
Today, he said he is the last one living who was involved in that 1944 battle.