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By Alex Kershaw

Too few men received the highest award for valor on D Day. Is it time to correct this 75-year-old injustice?  

        On 6 June 1944, some 73,000 Americans landed in Normandy. More than two thousand made the ultimate sacrifice with by far the highest losses suffered on Omaha Beach with over nine hundred killed. There were untold acts of great boldness and audacity – frontal assaults into the cross-hairs of pre-sited machine-guns depend for their success above all on courage and aggression. And yet for their actions on D Day only four Americans received the highest award for valor, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Were too few recognized from so very many brave men?

        One of the four recipients was Theodore Roosevelt Jr., acting deputy commander of the 4Th Division, the oldest man at age 56 to land in the first wave. He led very ably on 6 June and beyond. Stepping out of a landing craft at around 6.30 am on Utah Beach was in itself medal-worthy. Yet his status as the son of America’s 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, also explains  why he and no other man from 23,500 who crossed Utah, or indeed any paratrooper from more than 13,000 who dropped inland of the beach, received the highest award for valor. Patronage and politics played a part, however courageous Roosevelt undoubtedly was. 

       Other than Roosevelt, who died of heart failure on 12 July 1944, the other recipients of the medal all came ashore on Omaha. From the 35,000 men landed that day on the most fatal of the five landing beaches, some 4,700 men become casualties – missing, wounded, or killed – around thirteen percent of the total force launched early that morning from the sea. More than 900 men died there. No other one-day battle in the fight to liberate Europe was as costly for Americans as that to take Bloody Omaha. No other stretch of sands in Europe, it might be argued, witnessed so much death as well as courage in WWII. 

     All three of the men who received the MOH on Omaha belonged to the storied Big Red One, the only US infantry division from three on D Day that had previously experienced combat. Technician 5th Grade John Pinder from Pennsylvania had, like many of his comrades, seen action in Sicily with the 16th Infantry. He knew what an MG-42 machine gun sounded like – how it could fire up to 1500 rounds per minute, three times faster than any American automatic weapon. He knew the shrapnel caused by an 88mm artillery piece could turn men to hamburger. On Omaha, there was hardly anywhere out of range of both weapons.

      Pinder actually landed on his 32nd birthday, probably in the Easy Red sector, one of eight assigned landing zones, and the second most lethal after Dog Green where most of the  first wave were killed or wounded in just a few minutes. Carrying a heavy radio on his back, he was a natural target for snipers enjoying open season – defenders who knew that taking out radiomen was as impactful as picking off officers whose job it was to lead young, terrified Americans into the line of fire.

      As Pinder stepped off his landing craft, he came under intense machine gunfire which ripped through men nearby. He’d waded just a few yards when he too was hit. Although badly wounded, he managed to make it to the beach with his radio. Losing blood rapidly, Pinder refused to be treated by a medic and was seen trying to pull another radio and other equipment from the bullet-whipped shallows. The third time he returned to the waterline he was shot in the legs. While setting up radio communication – which would have helped save lives – he was hit yet again, this time fatally. 

         24-year-old Private Carlton Barrett, just 5ft 4 inches tall, tipping the scales at 125 pounds, was probably the smallest man in the 1st Division’s 18th Infantry Regiment. He also waded ashore under heavy fire. He too was seen returning several times to the water, in his case to save wounded men form drowning. Even as mortar shells exploded and bullets slashed all around, according to his MOH citation, he “calmed the shocked; he arose as a leader in the stress of the occasion.” He survived Omaha and the war. Forever haunted by the carnage he had witnessed, he died aged 66 in California.

            26-year-old, Virginia-born Lieutenant Jimmie Monteith, also with the Big Red One, also arrived when Bloody Omaha was deadliest and managed to organize his unit and get it to relative safety below some cliffs. He then led two tanks through a minefield and directed their fire at enemy strongpoints which were soon destroyed. After moving off Fox Red sector, furthest east on Omaha, he and his men seized a critical strongpoint, WN61, but were then surrounded. Attempting to break out, Monteith was killed.

        For their heroism on Omaha Beach, 153 men would receive the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second highest award for bravery. Some of these DSC awards for extraordinary courage on Omaha should, without doubt, have actually been Medals of Honor. But officials were apparently concerned that too many men would get the highest award and its significance might somehow be diminished. So in several cases the MOH was downgraded to a DSC by an evaluation board. Had it not been for a personal note from General Eisenhower himself, Jimmie Monteith would in fact have received the DSC rather than the MOH.

       Not one man from the other infantry division to land on Omaha, the 29th, received the MOH yet so many, namely Assistant Division Commander Norman Cota, were certainly deserving of it, more than showing sufficient “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty”. Unlike the Big Red One, the 29th Division was new to combat and most of National Guard unit’s officers had never made medal recommendations for a bronze star, let alone the highest award with its stringent conditions.

        As the 75th anniversary of D Day approaches it might be appropriate to convene a new evaluation board and look again at the cases of those whose bravery was not sufficiently recognized on D Day, starting with those who fought on Omaha Beach. Upgrading several DSC awards would be a fitting act of commemoration. It would make the families of these forgotten inordinately proud quite apart from correcting an injustice. But what of the recipients, long gone? Might they shrug and smile ruefully from their graves? Might they simply say, as so many living MOH recipients do: Thanks, but I was just doing my job. I was doing what any other good soldier would do.

        What do medals mean anyway? Many decorated veterans from WWII have prized above all the combat infantry badge, not an award for valor as such, but a signifier that they were in fact there, deep in the horror and maw, unlike the men on evaluation boards. They did their part. The recognition of that was more than enough. Take the case of Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated soldier from WWII. He didn’t rack up 33 awards so he could bask in glory. He wanted to get the war over as fast as he could and the best way to shorten it, in his mind, was to attack and kill the enemy. Medals meant so little to him that he considered giving all of his away when he returned home, covered in ribbons, brutalized and forever broken. “War is a nasty business,” he told one reporter, “to be avoided if possible, and to be gotten over with as soon as possible. It’s not the sort of job that deserves medals.”

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“Meet the assaulters: Pathfinders plunging from the black, coxswains plowing the whitecaps, bareknuckle Rangers scaling sheer rock. Will they secure the landing zone? Wrest the beachhead? Or will that last bridge blow up in their faces? Even if we know how D-Day ends, The First Wave grips with all the power of a first read. Fast-paced and up-close, this is history’s greatest story reinvigorated as only Alex Kershaw can.”—Adam Makos, New York Times bestselling author of A Higher Call

Montgomery decorates Sgt Streczyk of the 16th Regimental Combat Team with a British Military Medal

“The First Wave is Alex Kershaw’s stirring tribute to the warriors who successfully carried out the largest and most difficult military operations in history 75 years ago. One of the US First Infantry Division NCO’s who survived that desperate day in Normandy later said, ‘You can’t buy valor and you can’t pull heroes off an assembly line.’ Kershaw’s superb account of D-Day and beyond is the story of their amazing courage under fire and how men ranging from a lord of the realm to the humble son of a president answered the call and began the liberation of occupied Europe from Nazi tyranny.”—Carlo D’Este, author of Decision in Normandy and Patton: A Genius for War

“Master storyteller Alex Kershaw brings the key Allied players of D-Day to life once more. He vividly portrays their exploits—Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, French Commandos at Ouistreham, American paratroopers on the Cotentin, and assault troops who hit the Normandy beaches. These pages ooze with the unforgettable human drama of history’s most consequential invasion. Read them and you might even feel as though you were there.”—John C. McManus, author of The Dead and Those About to Die: D-Day—The Big Red One at Omaha Beach

“Alex Kershaw brilliantly brings a new perspective to one of the seminal events of WWII. The First Wave is an awe-inspiring and important book that portrays the blood on the risers, from Captain Frank Lillyman’s airborne pathfinders to Lieutenant George Kerchner’s Rangers and their remarkable assault on the cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc. The sights, sounds, and fury of D-Day are vividly captured in Kershaw’s virtuoso narrative.”—Patrick K. O’Donnell, author of The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Who Brought Him Home


“A masterful retelling of the most dramatic day of World War II—the Allied landings on the beaches of France. In Alex Kershaw’s expert hands, readers will feel the sting of the cold surf, smell the acrid cordite that hung in the air, and duck the zing of machine gun bullets whizzing overhead. The First Wave is an absolute triumph.”—James M. Scott, Pulitzer Prize Finalist and national bestselling author of Target Tokyo and Rampage

1946 photo of Pegasus Bridge with, from left, Georges Gondree the Proprietor of Cafe Gondree – now the Pegasus Bridge Cafe, Major John Howard DSO and Capt. David Wood.

B4K8NE WW2 casualties from the initial assault on D Day are helped ashore on Sword Beach The 1st Battalion South Lancashire Regiment together with elements of the Middlesex Regiment make their way up the beach from their landing crafts 1944

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ADN-ZB/Archiv, II.Weltkrieg 1939-45
Die Ardennenoffensive der faschistischen deutschen Wehrmacht beginnt am 16. Dezember 1944 gegen die alliierten Truppen in Westeuropa. Nach anf‰nglichen Erfolgen m¸ssen sich die deutschen Truppen bis Ende Januar 1945 auf ihre Ausgangsstellungen zur¸ckziehen.
Eine Kolonne gefangengenommener amerikanischer Soldaten.

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PLEASE VISIT WWW.ALEXKERSHAW.COM for more information on tours of Europe.

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The National WWII Museum embarks on a unique seven-day, six-night tour of France, visiting sites from Alex Kershaw’s New York Times bestsellers—Avenue of Spies and The Bedford Boys—with the author himself serving as featured historian. Guests get an up-close view of the beaches of Normandy, while hearing stories of sacrifice about the “Bedford Boys” who came ashore with Company A, 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division during the first wave at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Tour members also roam the breathtaking streets of Paris with Kershaw, who provides depth and context to the espionage that occurred there more than 70 years ago. Avenue Foch, one of the most upscale and exclusive streets in Paris, was home to Avenue of Spies protagonist Dr. Sumner Jackson and his family. Their address at Number 11 was both a meeting place for the French Resistance and a drop site for crucial information. High-ranking Nazis took up residence nearby putting the Jacksons in constant danger. Kershaw’s stories will bring to life the Jackson family’s courage at a time when “Never had so many psychopaths and sadists been based on one street in Paris.”

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THE THUNDERBIRDS’ MARCH TOWARD the Third Reich resumed the next morning shortly after dawn. They pushed farther inland, past seemingly endless vineyards where fat grapes ripened. Despite four years of conflict, the pastel-shaded houses and lovingly tended orchards and gardens gave the impression of a prosperous region little affected by world war. As they moved north, men started to practice their high school French.

“Avay voo des oeffs?”

“Voolay voo cooshay aveck moi?”

“Avay voo champagne?”

“A la Victoir!”

“And damn toot sweet!”

Villages and towns fell in quick succession as the Thunderbirds conducted their own Provençal blitzkrieg through Salernes along the D561 to Varages, north to Pertuis, and on to Apt below the Grand Luberon Mountains. It was a dreamlike rush through bleached fields dotted with neat bundles of drying lavender, its scent strong in the hot mistral winds, and along dusty roads shaded by plane trees. Photographs taken during the giddy advance showed Thunderbirds ducking their heads into yellow-stoned fountains, surrounded by excited French boys in shorts and sandals. In some villages, partisans greeted them, feverishly smoking sour Turkish tobacco cigarettes, their pomaded hair glinting in the sun, as vengeful crowds gathered to slap and kick black-eyed collaborators and watch the Germans’ French mistresses have their heads shaved.

Unlike in Italy, there were no shoeless children begging at the mess tents at chow time. No more widows clad in black scavenging in the dirt with bony hands for cigarette and cigar butts. Local partisans provided key intelligence about the Germans and their movements, and often eagerly joined forces with the Thunderbirds as they advanced, flushing enemy snipers like sangliers— wild boars— from cedar forests and gorges of the Luberon Mountains. Some would stay with the regiment until the end of the war.

One day, as he charged deeper into France, Sparks apparently learned from scouts that a key bridge was undefended and decided to check it out. As he approached the bridge, he began to feel distinctly uneasy. It was far too quiet for his liking. Nevertheless, he continued down a hill toward the bridge in his jeep. A dozen Germans suddenly appeared. Sparks put his hands in the air to surrender. A German walked over to the jeep. Then a fist flew. Sparks’s driver is said to have knocked the German to the ground and gunned the engine. Before the startled Germans could react, he and Sparks had raced around a corner and disappeared from view.

Sparks joked that he now must hold the record for the shortest time spent as a prisoner in World War II. But the near escape left him determined to be better armed in the future in case he had to blast his way out of trouble. What he really wanted was a shotgun, like the one he’d used to hunt with back in the Arizona. It wasn’t long before his men had found an old French farmer, paid him for his buckshot-loaded scattergun, and handed it to a delighted Sparks.

Sparks kept his Colt .45 in a hip holster and carried the shotgun up front in his jeep. In one village, he found a craftsman who replaced the pistol’s standard grips with transparent plastic taken from a downed American bomber’s windshield. Sparks set a photograph of his son, Kirk, and wife, Mary, under one grip and a favorite pinup under the other. From now on, beauty would be his lucky charm.



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By Alex Kershaw

Photo: Flight Lieutenant Frank Howell, RAF 609 Squadron.

By May 26 1940, around 250,000 British troops, the rump of what remained of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), were surrounded in the French port of Dunkirk and being mercilessly attacked by Göring’s Stuka dive-bombers. From the air it seemed that the nearby beaches swarmed with a huge army of ants that rippled with fear as German pilots made strafing runs. The mood was grim, both on the sand dunes where starving, exhausted Tommies waited for rescue, and in London, where even in Churchill’s War Cabinet there was talk of a compromise peace with Hitler. Churchill ended all such defeatist sentiment, telling his cabinet in an emotionally charged meeting on May 28: “I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to come to an end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

Churchill’s defiance was met with cheers and hurrahs. It was clear that he now had every one of his cabinet firmly on his side. “Quite a number,” he recalled, “seemed to jump from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back . . . had I at this juncture faltered at all in leading the nation I should have been hurled out of office. I am sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in.”

Just as the cabinet had rallied to Churchill, so would the nation. But first, something had to be salvaged from the disaster unfolding at Dunkirk. Senior commanders hoped that perhaps thirty thousand men, a fraction of the British Expeditionary Force, might be saved. In London, Ambassador Kennedy added his own assessment to the general air of doom, cabling President Roosevelt that: “Only a miracle can save the BEF from being wiped out or, as I said yesterday, surrender . . . the English people, while they suspect a terrible situation, really do not realize how bad it is. When they do I don’t know what group they will follow, the do or die or the group that wants a settlement.”

But all was not yet lost. The seafaring nation was beginning to respond to a call for all available vessels to make the hazardous Channel crossing and evacuate men from the bloodstained beaches. All manner of craft, from private dinghies to Thames tugboats, were headed toward Dunkirk. Above the beaches, Fighter Command’s Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons were also now in action, fighting with unprecedented aggression, many of their pilots furious at the sight of their countrymen being mowed down as they waded in long snaking lines toward rescue boats. Even veteran Luftwaffe pilots, who had readily strafed columns of refugees in Spain and destroyed Guernica, soon began to sicken of the slaughter. For twenty-four-year-old Captain Paul Temme, flying at three hundred feet above his victims, it was “just unadulterated killing. The beaches were jammed full of soldiers. I went up and down ‘hose-piping.’ It was cold-blooded point-blank murder.”

The fighting over Dunkirk would be a prelude to the Battle of Britain, and the Luftwaffe and the RAF took careful measure of each other. For the first time, the Germans encountered the full force of Fighter Command, and it was soon clear that the RAF’s Spitfires and Hurricanes were just as lethal as the Messerschmitt Me-109, the Germans’ best fighter. Another thing was quickly obvious: the British pilots were as well disciplined and courageous as their foe in the air, confirming the warning of influential First World War veteran Theo Osterkamp: “Now we fight ‘The Lords,’ and that is something else again. They are hard fighters and they are good fighters.”

For many RAF pilots, Dunkirk was a chaotic and brutal baptism of fire. “The Me-109s were quicksilver,” recalled one squadron leader. “It would have been ideal to come against them as a controlled formation, but the Germans always split up, so somehow you did, too. Then it was every man for himself—which was all right if you were good.” Thankfully, some were very good indeed. They included twenty-eight-year-old Flight Lieutenant Frank Howell of 609 West Riding Squadron, a strikingly handsome, blond-haired former mechanic who, on June 1, 1940, was appointed a flight leader after two days of fierce combat.

In a remarkable letter to his brother, Howell provided a vivid account of what it was like to fly above the hell of Dunkirk: “The place was still burning furiously, a great pall of smoke stretching 7,000 feet in the sky over Belgium . . Thousands and thousands of A/A [anti-aircraft] shells were bursting over the town . . . I looked down to see salvo after salvo of bombs bursting with terrific splashes in the water near some shipping, and there was a Heinkel, only 500 feet below going in the opposite direction so I did a half roll, and came up its arse, giving it a pretty 2 seconds fire . . . All the way back to England I flew full throttle at about 15 feet above the water and the shipping between England and Dunkirk was a sight worth seeing. Paddle boats, destroyers, sloops, tugs, fishing trawlers, river launches . . . anything with a motor towing anything without one . . . I am indeed lucky to have got away scot free. Dizzy was killed and five other chaps are missing. One was my flight commander so I am now in charge of A Flight, and will get another stripe, and it’s a rotten way to get it.”

On June 1, Winston Churchill was back in Paris, again trying to rally the French and sharing with them the heartening news that more than 165,000 troops had been pulled off the beaches at Dunkirk. Distressingly, his exhortations to fight on to the very end appeared to fall on deaf ears. Churchill’s escort from Paris back to England was to be provided by 601 Squadron, otherwise known as the Millionaires’ Squadron because several of its pilots came from wealthy families. “Winston was ebullient as ever,” recalled an aide. “When we started back he insisted on pacing round the aerodrome to review [601’s] nine Hurricanes, tramping through the tall grass in the flurry of propellers with his cigar like a pennant.”

British Major General Sir Edward Spears remembered “nine fighter planes drawn up in a wide semi-circle around the Prime Minister’s Flamingo . . . Churchill walked toward the machines, grinning, waving his stick, saying a word or two to each pilot as he went from one to the other, and, as I watched their faces light up and smile in answer to his, I thought they looked like the angels of my childhood. These men may have been naturally handsome, but that morning they were far more than that, creatures of an essence that was not of our world: their expressions of happy confidence as they got ready to ascend into their element, the sky, left me inspired, awed and earthbound.”

One of these angels, Flying Officer Gordon “Mouse” Cleaver, remembered that morning somewhat differently.13 The night before, the Millionaires had become rip-roaring drunk: “There assembled at Villacou-blay just about as hungover a crew of dirty, smelly, unshaven, unwashed fighter pilots as I doubt has ever been seen. Willie [Rhodes-Moorehouse] if I remember right was being sick behind his aeroplane, when the Great Man arrived and expressed a desire to meet the escort. We must have appeared vaguely human at least, as he seemed to accept our appearance without comment, and we took off for England.”14 By June 4, the evacuation of Dunkirk was officially over with an incredible 338,226 Allied troops removed from the beaches to England. Göring’s promise that “not a British soldier will escape” had been ludicrous. He had simply been “talking big again” as General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Hitler’s General Staff, was quick to point out.15 In a week of almost constant combat above Dunkirk, the RAF had shot down 132 German planes for a loss of 99 of its own fighters, 5 from Flight Leader Frank Howell’s 609 Squadron. It was a remarkable performance, or as Churchill described it to his War Cabinet, “a signal victory which gives cause for high hopes of our successes in the future.”

The British Expeditionary Force had been saved by some 693 boats of all sizes, many of them “little ships”—dinghies, pleasure yachts, skiffs, tugboats—a quarter of which were sunk. But now it had nothing to fight with. Almost all the BEF’s armor and weapons had been left behind, leaving England practically defenseless. The evacuation of Dunkirk could certainly not be described as a victory, but it was nevertheless a powerful tonic to both the British people and the rest of the free world.

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