‘They don’t tell his story’: Family fights to display Medal of Honor in Marine legend’s hometown
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 3, 2019
CAMP COURTNEY, Okinawa — On the night of May 14, 1945, Marine Maj. Henry Courtney Jr. led a daring assault on Okinawa’s Sugar Loaf Hill.
The Duluth, Minn., attorney and reservist was killed by a Japanese mortar after a vicious close-quarters fight, but not before his Marines had inflicted heavy casualties. Courtney was awarded the Medal of Honor two years later.
Now, nearly 74 years after Courtney fell on the battlefield, a new fight is brewing, this time over the hero of Sugar Loaf Hill’s Medal of Honor itself.
Members of Courtney’s family say the nonprofit that received it as a donation from the Marine’s sister in the 1980s has broken its promise to honor Courtney’s memory and has essentially hoarded the medal away in a vault with numerous others.
The family is asking for the medal to be given or loaned to a Duluth veterans memorial and museum that has a substantial Courtney display.
Thus far, the Valley Forge, Pa.-based Freedoms Foundation has refused to discuss the request with the family and the Veterans Memorial Hall. The family and its supporters have taken their fight public.
“They’re not telling Henry’s story,” Courtney’s nephew, Court Storey, who was named for the Medal of Honor recipient, said of the Freedoms Foundation in a recent telephone interview.
“I think it’s a betrayal of trust when someone gives you something … and wants his memory to live on and you don’t do anything with one of the 10 [Medals of Honor] you have … You don’t hear anything about Henry [in their programs],” he said.
The Freedoms Foundation was founded in 1949 by a group that included future President Dwight Eisenhower to educate Americans about their rights and responsibilities as citizens as well as to honor community service and those who give selflessly, according to its website.
President David Harmer said the foundation “always” wants to honor donor intent, but in this case, that requires only that the medal be “safeguarded [at the foundation] in perpetuity.”
Courtney was born Jan. 6, 1916, the youngest of four siblings, according to a history written by a Duluth veterans’ group. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, he received a law degree from Loyola University.
While in school, Courtney had contacted a Marine recruiter and began the process of becoming commissioned in the Marine Corps Reserve, the history said. He took the oath of service in March 1940.
After a stint in Iceland, he commanded a company of Marines during the Battle of Guadalcanal, the history said. After a bout of malaria that briefly saw him returned to the United States, Courtney requested combat duty and joined 2nd Battalion, 22nd Marines in November 1944.
His next stop was Okinawa, Japan, and the bloodiest battle of the Pacific campaign.
In the years since Courtney’s death, the Navy destroyer escort USS Courtney and the Okinawa Marine base Camp Courtney – today the home of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, 3rd Marine Division headquarters and the Operation Iceberg memorial – have been named for the Marine legend.
‘They don’t tell his story’
After his parents died, Courtney’s Medal of Honor passed to his sister, Elizabeth Bean, Storey said. She assumed the mantle of trying to keep her brother’s memory alive.
Bean didn’t want the medal to end up in some attic where no one could find it; she wanted her brother’s “story to live on,” he said. So, she began researching museums and educational institutions that would take and display the medal forever.
Bean learned about the Freedoms Foundation, which had a 42-acre memorial, called Medal of Honor Grove, and a museum dedicated to recipients, Storey said.
She contacted grove archivist Sister Maria Veronica Keane and was impressed by her dedication to the recipients. She donated the medal to the foundation in 1980 under the condition that Courtney’s story be told in a meaningful way, Storey said.
Keane left her position in 1986 and died in 2002, according to the foundation’s website.
Storey got involved with his uncle’s legacy in 2013 when officials from the Duluth-based St. Louis County Historical Society contacted him for information on Courtney, he recalled. The society has since unveiled exhibits at the Veterans Memorial Hall in Duluth honoring Courtney and held three events dedicated to his memory.
Storey said he was moved by the outpouring of support.
“It just gave me this great feeling … here in his hometown, 70 years later, people are getting to look at his picture,” Storey said.
Local resident and retired Marine Capt. Mike Stainbrook contacted the family on behalf of the society and expressed interest in displaying the medal at the Veterans Memorial Hall museum, Storey said. The family was interested.
Courtney’s nieces and nephews had a bad impression of the Freedoms Foundation after several relatives stopped by in recent years and had been barred from seeing the medal as it is kept secured in a vault.
They were told they would have to call ahead if they wanted to view it, Storey said. They were able to view Courtney’s file at the foundation but were surprised to see that it contained only his medal citation. There is no display dedicated to the Marine.
“They have it in a glass case; I think they have 10 Medals of Honor and Henry’s is one of them,” Storey said. “They bring them up [together], and while they’re doing one of their workshops or classes, [the medals are] sitting there [in the room]. It’s some generic program. They don’t tell his story.”
Storey said foundation educators talk about character development while the medals are in the room, but they don’t talk about the individual recipients.
In November 2015, Storey and seven other Courtney nieces and nephews wrote a letter to the foundation asking that ownership of the medal be transferred to the Duluth museum. That was denied. They then asked for a six-month loan, which was also denied.
In 2016, the historical society renovated Duluth’s Veterans Memorial Hall Gallery at a cost of $75,000, said JoAnne Coombe, the society’s executive director.
The renovations included increased security for the Medal of Honor display in a section called “Medal of Honor Row,” which features exhibits on Duluth Medal of Honor recipients. On Nov. 12, a replica of Courtney’s medal was installed at the museum during its third event honoring the Marine hero. Members of Courtney’s family were on hand.
In numerous calls, Courtney’s family has been unsuccessful in getting Harmer on the phone or getting a call back from him, Storey said.
When reached by phone by Stars and Stripes, Harmer did not dispute Storey’s comments about how the medal is stored and used, although he said that the foundation’s file also includes a history, some photographs and correspondence with Bean.
He said that he believed what the foundation did with Courtney’s medal was adequate in honoring the recipient.
Each time the family has contacted the foundation, its 13-member board of directors has been notified and after “careful deliberation” decided to “honor donor intent” and “retain the medal,” Harmer said. The foundation’s board includes Medal of Honor recipient Army Col. Walter Marm Jr.
“I really feel for them but generally somebody who has been entrusted with one of these medals … it is such an honor, such a responsibility, you safeguard it at all costs and so that’s our motivation,” Harmer said.
“It involves no disrespect to the family, no lack of sympathy for them, no lack of appreciation what the group in Duluth has done; we respect it greatly, but again, after consultation with our board … their unanimous decision was that we need to honor our original commitment to safeguard the medal,” he added.
Stainbrook said the foundation has offended many veterans in the Duluth area.
“At the time that Henry Courtney’s sister donated his [medal] to Freedoms Foundation there wasn’t a suitable place in Minnesota to display the medal,” Stainbrook said. The foundation’s “stated mission of educating our youth in responsible citizenship is a noble cause. However, I don’t see how stockpiling Medals of Honor fits that mission statement.”
Stainbrook vowed to continue the fight on behalf of Storey and Courtney’s kin and Duluth’s veteran community. He called on all veterans to write Harmer and the foundation’s board of directors.
“Our efforts to bring Maj. Courtney’s medal back to his hometown are just beginning,” Stainbrook said. “We are not going away.”
Storey said he was saddened that the foundation won’t discuss a loan with the family.
“If [my aunt] knew that they don’t really use the medal and it’s just there as a symbol … I firmly believe …[she] would say it’s going to go in Duluth,” he said. “I think they owe it to the man to give that medal back so it could appear in Duluth, so it could be seen.”