Senators, supporters seek federal Medal of Honor highway designation along 12-state route
Stars and Stripes September 5, 2023
Massachusetts has supplied the last link in the creation of a coast-to-coast route saluting recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor in combat.
At a celebration on Aug. 12 in Boston's Kenmore Square, near Fenway Park, a proclamation was read designating the portion of U.S. Highway 20 running through the state as the Massachusetts Medal of Honor Highway. A military honor guard and members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars also took part.
Massachusetts became the 12th and final state to designate its portion of Highway 20 as their Medal of Honor Highway. The route goes through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts.
Supporters of the National Medal of Honor Highway Project have one final goal: Congress.
Currently the Medal of Honor route is actually a collection of state designations along the route. U.S. Highway 20 extends 3,365 miles from Newport, Ore., on the Pacific Coast, to Boston on the Atlantic.
Each leg through one of the dozen states honors Medal of Honor recipients from that state — or about 60% of all 3,516 service members who have received the Medal of Honor since the Civil War.
Bipartisan legislation introduced in the Senate would honor all those who have been awarded the Medal of Honor.
Democratic and Republican senators backing the federal designation said in a joint statement that the recognition of Medal of Honor recipients would be a generational memorial to the bravery of those in the nation's past and those to come in conflicts of the future who act above the call of duty.
“Designating U.S. Highway 20 as the ‘National Medal of Honor Highway’ would provide a permanent and deserved recognition of America’s heroes," said U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Dick Tobiason of Bend, Oregon, was inspired to launch the highway effort as a way to honor his friend and neighbor, Bob Maxwell, who received the decoration in World War II.
Maxwell, as a 23-year-old Army Technician 5th Grade, received the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of fellow American soldiers by jumping on a German hand grenade during an attack by Nazi troops near Besancon, France on Sept. 7, 1944.
Maxwell recovered from his severe wounds, married and died at age 98 on May 11, 2019, survived by children and grandchildren.
Tobiason brought the idea to the Oregon Legislature, which in 2017 passed the first state highway designation in the project. It covered the 451-mile portion of U.S. Highway 20 that runs through Oregon, which produced 12 Medal of Honor recipients.
It became a template for other states to follow, with the designations, along with signs honoring recipients from each state.
At the August event in Boston, the guest of honor was former Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services Director Thomas G. Kelley. He represented the 65 living Medal of Honor recipients.
Kelley, a Boston native, received the Medal of Honor while a lieutenant in command of River Assault Division 152 — the "brown water Navy" swift boats that saw action on the rivers of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
On June 15, 1969, Kelley led eight boats on a mission along the Ong Muong Canal in Kien Hoa Province, South Vietnam. The boats came under heavy enemy fire from Viet Cong forces on the shore.
When one boat broke down, Kelley ordered his own vessel placed between the shore and the stalled craft. A rocket propelled grenade hit Kelley's boat, severely injuring him — costing him an eye.
Kelley continued to direct the response to the attack and was able to withdraw his boats to safety.