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‘We have the chance to set the record straight'

President Barack Obama talks Tuesday about Medal of Honor recipients Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris, Sgt. 1st Class Jose Rodela, and Spc. Santiago J. Erevia, at the White House. Each soldier was promoted after the actions for which they were honored and wear the uniform of their highest-held rank.

WASHINGTON — Charging into the teeth of heavy Vietcong fire to extract a fallen buddy, then-Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris was doing just what Medal of Honor recipients before him had done.

So was Pfc. Leonard Kravitz, who refused to retreat, ultimately sacrificing his life to mow down waves of Chinese soldiers and protect his comrades as they fell back.

Pvt. Joe Gandara made a solo charge that took out three German machine-gun positions and saved his unit at the cost of his life, and likewise embodied all the ferocious fighting skill and selfless bravery required of recipients of the nation’s highest award for valor.

Yet each man received the second highest Army valor medal — the Distinguished Service Cross. They were passed over, many believe, because of long-standing bias in the Army against giving the Medal of Honor to men based on race, ethnicity or religion.

But old attitudes can fall with time, and in March, President Barack Obama conferred the Medal of Honor on 24 soldiers who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, some of whom may have been downgraded from MOH contention because of their ethnic backgrounds.

“And today we have the chance to set the record straight,” Obama said in a White House ceremony March 18. “No nation is perfect, but here in America, we confront our imperfections and face a sometimes painful past, including the truth that some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal.”

It was the culmination of more than a decade of work that began after Congress ordered the Army to review the cases of all Jewish and Hispanic soldiers who had received the Distinguished Service Cross from World War II onward to see if their heroism had been unfairly passed over.

The review was prompted by Mitchell Libman, who for decades sought the Medal of Honor for Kravitz, his boyhood friend from Brooklyn, N.Y. The young assistant machine gunner had voluntarily stayed at his post and held off what Army described as a “fanatical” charge by Chinese troops in Korea in March 1951, covering his comrades as they retreated. When they retook the position, they found his body next to his machine gun.

It’s the kind of heroism that has regularly resulted in Medal of Honor awards, but for Kravitz it wasn’t forthcoming. Libman finally found an effective ally in Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., who introduced a bill requiring the review in the 2002 National Defense Authorization Act.

“It was obvious to me from reading everything that it had something to do with his religion,” he told Stars and Stripes. “And I couldn’t believe that here’s a guy who saved so many lives, and there are people upset that a Jewish guy is getting the Medal of Honor.”

Army researchers combed through some 6,500 Distinguished Service Cross awards and zeroed in on about 600 that went to soldiers who might be Jewish or Hispanic. In the end, the Army found 17 Hispanic soldiers, one black soldier, one Jewish soldier — Kravitz — and five soldiers of other ethnic backgrounds who deserved the honor.

The action echoed an earlier review ordered in 1996, which found seven black soldiers deserved the Medal of Honor for actions in World War II. Before that, there were no African-American recipients of the medal for that war.

Only three of the 24 — Vietnam veterans Santiago Erevia, Melvin Morris and Jose Rodela — lived to personally receive the Medal of Honor. Ten others were killed in action, and the rest died in the decades after the wars in which they fought.

There is no bitterness among the living recipients, only satisfaction that the nation is at last breaking down artificial barriers that placed ethnic and religious identity above valor and sacrifice in battle.

“I don’t hold anything against anyone,” Morris told Stars and Stripes. “Times change, times move forward, and we look back to correct some things — so I feel good about that.”

carroll.chris@stripes.com
Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

 

The recipients

Ranks shown are those at the time of separation, retirement or death.

Vietnam War

Spec. 4 Leonard L. Alvarado received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as a Rifleman with Company D, 2d Battalion, 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) during combat operations against an armed enemy in Phuoc Long Province, Republic of Vietnam on August 12, 1969.

Staff Sgt. Felix M. Conde-Falcon received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as an acting Platoon Leader in Company D, 1st Battalion, 505th Infantry Regiment, 3d Brigade, 82d Airborne Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Ap Tan Hoa, Republic of Vietnam on April 4, 1969.

Sgt. Ardie R. Copas received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as a Machinegunner in Company C, 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 5th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy near Ph Romeas Hek, Cambodia on May 12, 1970.

Sgt. Jesus S. Duran received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as an acting M-60 machinegunner in Company E, 2d Battalion, 5th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) during combat operations against an armed enemy in the Republic of Vietnam on April 10, 1969.

Sgt. Santiago J. Erevia received the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions while serving as radio telephone operator in Company C, 1st Battalion (Airmobile), 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) during search and clear mission near Tam Ky, Republic of Vietnam.

Sgt. Candelario Garcia received the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions while serving as an acting Team Leader for Company B, 1st Battalion, 2d Infantry, 1st Brigade,1st Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Lai Khe, Republic of Vietnam on December 8, 1968.

Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris received the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions while serving as Commander of a Strike Force drawn from Company D, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces, during combat operations against an armed enemy in the vicinity of Chi Lang, Republic of Vietnam on September 17, 1969.

Master Sgt. Jose Rodela received the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions while serving as the company commander, Detachment B-36, Company A, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces during combat operations against an armed enemy in Phuoc Long Province, Republic of Vietnam on September 1, 1969.

Korean War

Cpl. Joe R. Baldonado received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as an acting machine gunner in 3d Squad, 2d Platoon, Company B, 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment during combat operations against an armed enemy in Kangdong, Korea on November 25, 1950.

Sgt. Victor H. Espinoza received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as an Acting Rifleman in Company A, 23d Infantry Regiment, 2d Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Chorwon, Korea on August 1, 1952.

Sgt. 1st Class Eduardo C. Gomez received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving with Company I, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Tabu-dong, Korea on September 3, 1950.

Pfc. Leonard M. Kravitz received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as an assistant machine gunner with Company M, 5th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Yangpyong, Korea on March 6 and 7, 1951.

Master Sgt. Juan E. Negron received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as a member of Company L, 65th Infantry Regiment, 3d Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Kalma-Eri, Korea on April 28, 1951.

Master Sgt. Mike C. Pena received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as a member of Company F, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Waegwan, Korea, on September 4, 1950.

Pfc. Demensio Rivera received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as an automatic rifleman with 2d Platoon, Company G, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3d Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Changyong-ni, Korea on May 23, 1951.

Pvt. Miguel A. Vera received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as an automatic rifleman with Company F, 38th Infantry Regiment, 2d Infantry Division in Chorwon, Korea, on September 21, 1952.

Segt. Jack Weinstein received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while leading 1st Platoon, Company G, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division in Kumsong, Korea on October 19, 1951.

World War II

Pvt. Pedro Cano received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving with Company C, 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Schevenhutte, Germany on December 3, 1944.

Pvt. Joe Gandara received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving with Company D, 2d Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 17th Airborne Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Amfreville, France on June 9, 1944.

Pfc. Salvador J. Lara received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as the Squad Leader of a rifle squad with 2d Platoon, Company L, 180th Infantry, 45th Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Aprilia, Italy on May 27 and 28, 1944.

Staff Sgt. William F. Leonard received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as a Squad Leader in Company C, 30th Infantry Regiment, 3d Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy near St. Die, France on November 7, 1944.

Master Sgt. Manuel V. Mendoza received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as a Platoon Sergeant with Company B, 350th Infantry, 88th Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy on Mt. Battaglia, Italy on October 4, 1944.

Sgt. Alfred B. Nietzel received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as a section leader for Company H, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Heistern, Germany on November 18, 1944.

First Lt. Donald K. Schwab received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as the Commander of Company E, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3d Infantry Division, during combat operations against an armed enemy near Lure, France on September 17, 1944.

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