Of the 12 World War II Medal of Honor winners still living when the U.S. Postal Service decided to recognize them in January of 2012, four no longer are alive, including longtime U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye and John D. "Bud" Hawk, of Bremerton, Wash., who died just last week at 89.
All 12 will be recognized on Monday, Veterans Day, with the first issuance of a Medal of Honor Forever postage stamp at the National World War II Memorial on the National Mall. A folio edition of the stamps will bear their pictures representing the 464 soldiers who received the nation’s highest award for bravery during that conflict. A previous, 20-cent Medal of Honor stamp was issued in 1983.
Two World War II era medal recipients, Wilburn K. Ross of Dupont, Wash., whose citation says he killed or wounded 58 Germans in France in October, 1944, and George T. Sakato of Denver, whose citation says he took 34 German prisoners and "turned impending defeat into victory" also in France that same month, will be on hand, as will Inouye’s wife, Irene Hirano Inouye.
On Wednesday, 92-year-old Charles Coolidge of Signal Mountain, Tenn., will be recognized at a ceremony at the Signal Crest United Methodist Church in Memphis.
There his citation, describing his display of "great coolness and courage" while lobbing grenades at advancing German troops, will be read, said Jim Wade, director of the National Medal of Honor Museum of Military History in Chattanooga. Wade called Coolidge, who still goes to his commercial printing business every work day, "a great example of The Greatest Generation."
In a 20-minute phone interview last week, Coolidge described landing at Salerno and working his way up the boot of Italy, liberating Naples and Rome, then coming ashore again at Cannes, in southern France, on August 15, 1944. Asked to describe the battle in late October for which he received the medal, he said it began with his 12 men and two machine guns taking a hill virtually unopposed, then confronting tanks.
"They had a tank that got within 12 feet of my gun and the guy stood up (in the tank) and asked me in perfect English, he said, ‘Do you guys want to give up?’ And I said, ‘Sorry, Mack, you’re going to have to come and get me."’ The tank commander responded with five point-blank salvos, but missed.
A bazooka Coolidge, a sergeant, was carrying failed because someone had walked off with its battery, but "I had plenty of grenades," he said. "I’m a big believer in hand grenades."
He said he attributed his safe return to the prayers of his parents back home.
"We had a humble nation," he added. "We didn’t go in there as bullies, trying to the secure land. Somebody like Hitler had to get us started."
Medal of Honor recipient Vernon McGarity of Memphis, wounded and taken prisoner during the December 1944 German counter-offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge, won’t be on hand. He died in May at age 91.
Ray McGarity, 64, of Bartlett, Tenn., a retired Memphis school teacher, said he wishes his father could have stayed alive long enough to see the ceremony and recognition. "It’s an excellent thing," he said.
According to his Medal of Honor citation, Sgt. McGarity was wounded near Krinkelt, Belgium, in the artillery barrage that preceded the German counterattack. He was treated, but refused to be evacuated and returned to his unit, Company L of the 393rd Regiment in the 99th Infantry Division.
On the first day of the battle, Dec. 16, McGarity risked his life rescuing a wounded soldier. The next morning, Germans came at his position with tanks and infantry, and he disabled the lead tank with a rocket launcher. Rescuing another soldier, he then took out a light cannon in an effort to retrieve ammunition as supplies ran low. He later single-handedly took out a machine gun nest. After his ammunition ran out, he was taken prisoner and spent the last six months of the war as a POW.
President Harry Truman, who once said he’d "much rather have that Medal around my neck than to be president of the United States. It is the greatest honor that can come to a man," pinned the blue ribbon on McGarity when he returned from the war.
McGarity’s son said he was "floored" at the recognition his father received when he died of lung cancer in May. "Not only did (his obituary) make the papers everywhere, including London, it also made NBC News, the major network news," he said.
"He certainly was what I would call a true American hero, but you’d never know it," he said. "He never said anything about it. Never wanted to brag about it. Didn’t even hardly want to talk about it. He was just a quiet, reserved guy."
Bud Hawk, the hero who died last week, returned home to Bremerton from the war at 20 to a parade in his honor that in time became the longest-running Armed Services Day Parade in the country, according to The Kitsap Sun. He got a degree and taught elementary school and was later a principal for 31 years with the Central Kitsap School District. "I came when I was called and did the best that I could," he was quoted as saying
Besides Hawk, McGarity, Inouye, Ross, Sakato, and Coolidge, the Forever stamp folio on sale for the first time Monday will display photos of Francis S. Curry of Selkirk, N.Y.; Walter Ehlers of Buena Park, Calif.; Robert D. Maxwell of Bend, Ore.; Arthur J. Jackson of Boise, Id.; Hershel Williams of Ona, W.Va.; and the late Nicholas Oresko of Creskill, N.J.