Friday, December 3, 2021

Insight: Courage above and beyond

Ed Pierce, left, and General Jimmy
Doolittle, a recipient of the Medal
of Honor, meet during an awards
ceremony at The Pentagon in 
Washington, D.C. in January 1981.
By Ed Pierce

Managing Editor

I've been watching a series on Netflix for the past few weeks about those who have been awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions in combat during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Each of the eight episodes contains interviews with the medal recipient or members of their family and it’s some of the most moving television I’ve viewed in quite a while.

This series got me to thinking about how many actual Medal of Honor recipients I have met or interviewed during my career in journalism and in looking back, I found that to be a total of three.

In January 1981, I was attending a luncheon at The Pentagon and got to meet a special guest, Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, who had led the first American air strikes to hit Japan in April 1942.

Then Lt. Col. Doolittle commanded a top-secret attack of 16 B-25 bombers launched from the USS Hornet with targets in Tokyo, Kobe, Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya. Their mission was perilous as a previously unknown Japanese navy flotilla spotted the American planes and reported their approach.

The American’s fuel supply was mostly consumed by the time they had reached their targets in Japan. Some aircrews were forced to ditch into the shark-infested Sea of Japan while other found their planned landing sites in China taken over by Japanese troops and they were captured.

But Doolittle’s mission was a tremendous morale boost for America and shattered the myth that the Japanese homeland could not be attacked. It helped turn the tide of World War II and Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Franklin Roosevelt.

His citation reads, "For conspicuous leadership above and beyond the call of duty, involving personal valor and intrepidity at an extreme hazard to life. With the apparent certainty of being forced to land in enemy territory or to perish at sea, Lt. Col. Doolittle personally led a squadron of Army bombers, manned by volunteer crews, in a highly destructive raid on the Japanese mainland."

In October 2014, I interviewed a man billed as “the real-life Forrest Gump” at an event at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton, New Hampshire.

U.S. Army PFC Sammy Lee Davis of Indiana was serving at Firebase Cudgel in Vietnam on Nov. 18, 1967, when his unit came under machine gun fire and heavy mortar attack by three companies of Viet Cong soldiers. Detecting an enemy position, Davis manned a machine gun to give the U.S. troops cover so they could fire artillery in response to the Viet Cong attack. Davis himself was wounded but took over the unit's burning howitzer and fired several shells at the enemy. He also crossed a river on an air mattress under heavy enemy fire to help rescue three wounded American soldiers. He ultimately found his way back to another howitzer site to continue fighting until the attackers fled.   

For his heroism, Davis was promoted to the rank of Sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon Johnson. On his medal citation it partially reads “Sgt. Davis' extraordinary heroism, at the risk of his life, are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Army.”

In November 2014, I had the great privilege of interviewing Ryan Pitts of Nashua, New Hampshire, who was the guest speaker at the Veterans Day observance at the New Hampshire Veterans Home that year.

On July 13, 2008, Pitts, a U.S. Army sergeant, was providing perimeter security at Observation Post Topside in Afghanistan when a wave of rocket-propelled grenade rounds engulfed the post, wounding him and inflicting heavy casualties on U.S. troops. Pitts had been knocked to the ground and was bleeding heavily from shrapnel wounds to his arm and legs, but with incredible toughness and resolve, he returned fire on the enemy. As the enemy drew nearer, Sergeant Pitts threw grenades, holding them until after the pin was pulled and the safety lever was released to create a nearly immediate detonation on the hostile forces.

Unable to stand on his own and near death because of the severity of his wounds and blood loss, Pitts continued to fire at the enemy until reinforcements arrived. He crawled to a radio position and whispered into the radio situation reports and helped convey information that the command post used to provide indirect fire support.

His medal citation reads in part, “Sergeant Ryan M. Pitts' extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service.”

I consider myself lucky to have met and spoken with each of these heroes, who each told me that they did what they had to do to help protect the lives of their fellow Americans and the freedom of this nation.

All three of these men said they were humbled by the Medal of Honor and said that they thought of themselves as ordinary Americans who instinctively acted when duty called upon them. Their courage, patriotism and bravery remain a source of inspiration to me and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to tell their stories. <

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