Memorial Day is for heroes.
Some might see the holiday merely as a good time for a picnic, but it was set aside to remember those who died in service of the United States. In the spirit of the holiday, this column will introduce you to some of the most heroic of New Mexico’s heroes: the 16 who have received the Medal of Honor.
Recipients of our nation’s highest military honor are categorized by the state in which they enlisted or served. But it seems natural to also include those who were born here, so I’m going to do just that. Officially, nine Medal of Honor recipients are credited to New Mexico.
The Medal of Honor is presented by the president, in the name of Congress, to members of the U.S. military “who distinguish themselves through conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty,” according to the Department of Defense.
The fog of war can lead to some pretty amazing stories that would be better if true, but the actions of these honorees were thoroughly investigated and documented.
They are true.
Many recipients are killed in action. But some recipients survive their bravery and two New Mexico honorees – Hiroshi H. “Hershey” Miyamura and Leroy A. Petry – are still alive. Yet another recipient, Drew D. Dix of New York, received the Medal of Honor for his gallantry in Vietnam’s Chau Doc province in 1968 and now lives near Silver City.
If you’d like to read detailed accounts of their heroism – and I would highly recommend this – go to the official website of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, www.cmohs.org, or to the Home of the Heroes, www.homeofheroes.com, where you can find medal recipients sorted by state, war and other categories.
In order of the involved war, according to Home of the Heroes, here are those with New Mexico ties who have received the honor:
Cavalry 1st Sgt. Francis Oliver was among soldiers who pursued Apaches led by Cochise to his stronghold in the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona. He was cited for his gallantry in battle on Oct. 20, 1869.
Cavalry Pvt. Eben Stanley was cited for his gallantry in action during the Battle of Turret Peak against Yavapai and Tonto Apaches on March 25 and 27, 1873, in Arizona.
Marine 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr. led his men on Nov. 20-22, 1943, against overwhelming Japanese fire over a long, open pier during the U.S. assault on Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. At one point, Bonnyman crawled 40 yards ahead of U.S. lines to place explosives in the entrance of a large, bombproof installation that had been holding up the U.S. advance. More than 250 enemy combatants died in the explosion and subsequent fight, but Bonnyman was also killed.
Army Pvt. Joe P. Martinez of Taos was the only American not at Pearl Harbor to receive the Medal of Honor for action on U.S. soil during World War II. His fatal fight occurred on Attu Island on May 26, 1943. Using only hand grenades and his Browning Automatic Rifle, Martinez was instrumental in taking out key Japanese defensive positions on a dangerously steep, snow-covered mountain on this U.S. Aleutian island.
Army Pvt. Harold H. Moon Jr. operated a submachine gun on Leyte in the Philippines on Oct. 21, 1944. Though wounded, the Albuquerque native fought to protect a newly won beachhead against a large number of Japanese attackers. His foxhole soon became the focal point of the battle. Several times, Moon was forced to stand up to outmaneuver the approaching enemy and direct friendly mortar fire. After Moon was killed, nearly 200 dead Japanese soldiers were found within 100 yards of his foxhole.
Army Pfc. Alejandro R. Renteria Ruiz of Loving ran through a machine gun and grenade attack on Okinawa, Japan, on April 28, 1945, in an attempt to take out a pillbox that had pinned down his squad. His rifle jammed, and he was forced to turn back and redo his one-person assault after rearming – but this time the enemy’s focus was on him. Again dodging enemy fire, Ruiz climbed to the top of the pillbox in plain view and was able to kill 12 enemy soldiers and destroy the position.
Army 1st Lt. Robert S. Scott’s skill with the hand grenade came into play during a battle on the Solomon Islands on July 29, 1943. After 27 days of fighting, the enemy still held a hilltop that protected the approach to a Japanese-controlled airstrip. Scott pushed his exhausted men to attack the position. When the enemy launched a counterattack, the company withdrew. Scott, with only a tree stump for cover and despite being wounded in the head and hand, stood his ground. He held back the attackers by accurately throwing grenade after grenade, forcing their withdrawal. The airstrip was taken four days later.
Army Pfc. Jose F. Valdez of Gobernador was on outpost duty with five others 500 yards beyond American lines near Rosenkrantz, France, on Jan. 25, 1945. After being overwhelmed by German soldiers, Valdez volunteered to give cover fire while the other squad members withdrew. Even after a bullet entered his stomach and emerged through his back, Valdez continued firing until the rest of the patrol was safe. He then called in artillery and mortar fire that broke the German attack. He died of his wounds on Feb. 17, 1945.
U.S. Army Air Forces Brig. Gen. Kenneth N. Walker of Cerrillos commanded the 5th Bomber Command from Sept. 5, 1942, to Jan. 5, 1943, frequently participating in bombing missions. On Jan. 5, 1943, he led a daring daylight bombing attack on the harbor in Rabaul, New Britain, during which nine enemy vessels succumbed to direct hits. Walker’s plane was shot down during the attack.
Army Cpl. Hiroshi H. “Hershey” Miyamura of Gallup didn’t know for a while that he had been awarded the Medal of Honor. He was a prisoner of war for about two years and four months, and the honor was kept secret for his own safety. Before his capture, on April 24 and 25, 1951, Miyamura had fought ferociously with machine gun and with bayonet in hand-to-hand combat against an overwhelming number of North Korean soldiers. Twice, he stayed behind to keep the enemy at bay while others were being evacuated. Though seriously wounded and out of ammunition, when last seen before his capture he was still fighting furiously. Miyamura still lives in Gallup, where a high school was named after him.
Army Spec. 4th Class Daniel Fernandez of Los Lunas, along with a sergeant and two other soldiers, was attempting to evacuate a soldier who had been wounded during an ambush by Viet Cong at Cu Chi on Feb. 18, 1966. When the sergeant was also wounded, Fernandez took charge. Noticing that an enemy grenade had landed in the midst of the group, Fernandez vaulted over the wounded sergeant and landed on the grenade as it exploded, sacrificing his life.
Army Staff Sgt. Delbert O. Jennings of Silver City was part of a company defending an artillery position in the Kim Song Valley when attacked by a North Vietnamese Army regiment on Dec. 27, 1966. When his squad was forced back, he twice remained behind to cover the withdrawal. He exposed his position to the enemy by throwing white phosphorous grenades to direct the air-landing of reinforcements. And he led volunteers through a booby-trapped area to recover eight wounded soldiers who needed quick medical treatment.
Army Staff Sgt. Franklin D. Miller was leading an American-Vietnamese reconnaissance patrol in Kontum province on Jan. 5, 1970, when a team member tripped a booby trap, wounding four soldiers and alerting the enemy to their presence. Shortly after, Miller saw an enemy platoon heading their way. He directed his men to a safer position and single-handedly repulsed two attacks. An air-extraction spot was located in a nearby bomb crater, but, as a helicopter attempted to land, the enemy again attacked. Although shot in the chest – by now, four of his men were dead and the rest wounded – Miller again single-handedly fought off the attackers until a relief force reached the patrol location.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Louis R. Rocco of Albuquerque volunteered for a medical evacuation mission to retrieve eight wounded Republic of Vietnam Army personnel northeast of Katum on May 24, 1970. The rescue helicopter came under attack as it approached the landing zone and crashed. Rocco fractured his wrist and hip, and bruised his back in the crash, then was severely burned while extracting other survivors from the wreckage. Still under enemy fire, Rocco managed to carry the other survivors, who were injured and unconscious, to safety through about 20 meters of exposed terrain. He administered first aid until he collapsed and lost consciousness.
Marine Lance Cpl. Kenneth L. Worley of Farmington was a machine gunner serving in Quang Nam province. On Aug. 11, 1968, Worley’s patrol had established a night position in Bo Ban and those not on security assignments retired for the night. Early in the morning of Aug. 12, 1968, the platoon was awakened by a shout that enemy grenades had landed where they were sleeping. Worley jumped on a grenade and was killed, saving those nearest to him. Five other Marines were injured by other grenades in the attack.
Army Staff Sgt. Leroy A. Petry of Santa Fe was serving in Paktya province, Afghanistan, on May 26, 2008. His squad was attempting to clear the courtyard of a house when he and another Ranger were wounded by enemy rifle fire. An enemy grenade wounded two other Rangers. A second grenade then landed nearby, and Petry picked it up and attempted to fling it away from the group. The grenade detonated, amputating his right hand at the wrist, but his action saved the others from further injury or death. Petry was still was able to communicate their situation by radio and coordinate support for himself and the other wounded Rangers. Petry retired from the Army on July 29, 2014.
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