Arkansas residents join effort to replace Medals of Honor
By MARK GREGORY | Sentinel-Record via AP | Published: February 11, 2018
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Members of a goodwill group of Arkansans who visited Ireland last year in part to honor John King, an Irish-American War hero buried in Calvary Cemetery in Hot Springs, have renewed an effort to replace his two Medals of Honor, which were lost while in the possession of the U.S. Navy.
The privately funded trip included employees of Visit Hot Springs, which honors King annually at his grave site as part of the festivities surrounding the city's annual World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade. Visit Hot Springs and members of the parade committee have since worked behind the scenes on behalf of King's family, after learning during the trip to his hometown of Ballinrobe that the medals were missing.
King is a hometown hero in Ballinrobe, with a statue erected in his honor in the town square, said one member of the group, Monte Everhart, the reigning "World's Tallest Leprechaun" of the parade.
Everhart recalled finding out about the missing medals after the delegation had laid a wreath at the statue, with all the city fathers and the family members present, and were passing around his other medals, which were framed.
"I got to thinking about it — you know, the only thing that's missing are those two congressional medals, which are, you know, so important," he said Friday.
"They never got the medals, and they've got every medal — you know, he was a pretty decorated guy — there's just a missing spot in that box, is where the idea came from," Everhart said.
"When we found out about the missing medals in Ireland we decided to see what we could do to help in their quest to get them back or at least get some replacement medals," Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, one of the creators of the parade, said Thursday.
"Due to our shared history with John King, being buried here, we thought it was the least we could do for these wonderful people who have become our friends. Somehow we thought we could expedite the issue and help," Arrison said.
"So far we have been unsuccessful in working with our congressional delegation to find a resolution to the problem. The Navy will not replace the medals only reissue the proclamation awarding the medals. We are now wondering since the medals are awarded by Congress, not the Navy, maybe there is some other mechanism to get them replaced. We're not sure what that is, but we are not giving up. We are very proud to be the final resting place of a national hero and we very much want his medals to be returned or replaced so they can be displayed in his hometown of Ballinrobe, Ireland, to be a constant reminder of the connection between our two great countries," Arrison said.
The Sentinel-Record reports that King was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in 1901 and again in 1909 while serving in the U.S. Navy. According to Visit Hot Springs, he is one of only 19 people to receive the Medal of Honor twice.
Documents obtained from Visit Hot Springs through an FOIA request include a constituent inquiry Kathleen Ann Reid (King), John King's great-niece, made to U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton's office in September 2017.
After retiring from the military, King broke his right leg and was sent to Hot Springs to be treated at the former Army and Navy General Hospital in February 1937. He died there of pneumonia on May 20, 1938, according to the Garland County Historical Society.
According to Reid, the destroyer USS John King was later named in his honor and his two Medals of Honor were given to the then-commander, Albert Monroe Sackett, during a visit to Ballinrobe, and were displayed on board the ship, which was decommissioned in 1990.
"They have since disappeared and the family is seeking replicas," the request states.
Reid, in an email last September to Mary Zunick, cultural affairs manager with Visit Hot Springs and director of the Hot Springs Sister City program, said the medals had been kept in a biscuit box in King's home in Ballinrobe until they were handed to Sackett during a visit in 1962.
"We were told the medals were on display on the ship afterward. However, no one knows what happened to the medals after the ship was decommissioned (in) 1990." A family friend applied to the U.S. government for replicas, "but so far to no avail," Reid said in the email.
"Their reasoning appears to be that if the medals were loaned to the Navy it was a permanent loan, even though there is no record of such an agreement. This is despite the fact that we have documentation that the Navy had the medals and lost them. Bottom line they just don't replace Medals of Honor," Arrison said in an email to Cotton's office.
Among the documents provided by Visit Hot Springs is an October 2009 memo from U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Shawn C. Purvis, defense and air attaché in Dublin, apologizing for "this very unfortunate turn of events."
"The King family entrusted the U.S. Navy with a priceless piece of their family history, and a gross injustice occurred with the misplacement of these family heirlooms. I am hopeful that the original medals will be found since it is believed they were last seen in 1974, but the return of the original medals will be the ultimate goal. ... If the original medals cannot be located, there should not be a problem getting replacements from the U.S. Navy. Even if I have to purchase them myself, I will do everything in my power to get the medals replaced in a timely manner," the memo states.
"He's a hometown hero," Everhart said.
"With all of the immigration issues and all that now, what a great way to try to show a little respect for an ally; a great nation that sent us a lot of their kids who perished trying to save democracy," Everhart said.
The original idea was to get at least two of the family members to Hot Springs in time for St. Patrick's Day, so that they could be presented the medals during the St. Patrick's Day parade, in addition to showing them the grave site, according to Everhart.
During the wreath-laying ceremony on Sept. 1, 2017, the Arkansans exchanged gifts with their Irish hosts, "which attracted a large group of Ballinrobe residents and local officials. The ceremony received prominent coverage in the County Mayo newspaper the next day. On hand to accept gifts from Hot Springs were Ann Reid, John King's great-niece; Tom Tiernan, founder of the John King Committee in the town; and Ger Delaney with the Family Research Centre in Ballinrobe," according to a news release from Visit Hot Springs.
"Our gifts were cherry bowls created by Hot Springs artist Gene Sparling," Zunick said in the release. "The Ballinrobe residents presented us with a photograph of Lough Mask, Ballinrobe, by Elizabeth Parsons, who is Ann Reid's daughter, so a great-great-niece of John King."
The delegation also visited with Reece Smyth, acting United States ambassador to Ireland, at the United States Embassy in Dublin.
The delegation included Mike and Dona Pettey, Chelsey Lovell, Chrissy Egleston, Bess Sanders, Kathleen Moore, Monte and Kim Everhart, Chris and Aundrea Crary, Mary Daniel, Sharon Gloria, Arrison and his wife, Jackie, Mark and Melissa Allen, Neal and Rhonda Harrington, and Zunick and her husband, Robert.
In addition to Dublin and Ballinrobe, the delegation also visited Donnybrook, Waterford, Cork, Kinsale, Blarney, Shannon, Galway, Westport, Lough Corrib and Clonmacnoise.
King was born in Ballinrobe on Feb. 7, 1862, and immigrated to the United States when he was 24, according to the Garland County Historical Society.
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy on July 20, 1893, serving as a coal passer on the USS Vermont. From 1893 to 1900, he served aboard the USS Vermont, USS New York, and the USS Massachusetts.
In 1900, he was sent to the gunboat USS Vicksburg, which sailed from Boston by way of the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal to the Philippines, where the U.S. was fighting Filipino rebels. On May 29, 1901, while lying off Port Isabella in the Philippines, the Vicksburg was shaken by what every sailor dreaded — a boiler explosion, according to an account from the historical society that was provided by Visit Hot Springs. King rushed to the dangerous scene and, in his words, "shut off the main stop of the boiler and smothered it up with blankets and towels." He was awarded the Medal of Honor, with his citation for "heroism in the line of his profession" signed by President Theodore Roosevelt.
While serving on the USS Salem, a light scout cruiser and one of the U.S. Navy's first turbine-engine warships, he earned his second Medal of Honor from President William Howard Taft, after badly scalding his arms while saving 12 in the fire-room who were in danger of being scalded to death.