History, Legend and Myth:

Hollywood and the Medal of Honor

by

Lyle F. Padilla

Major, Armor, US Army (Retired)

and

Raymond J. Castagnaro

Lt Col, US Air Force (Retired)

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2014, 2016, 2017


Introduction

 

As Lord Byron's old maxim states: "Truth is stranger than fiction." Truth is also more fascinating than fiction and can be more entertaining than fiction.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the stories of the men who have earned America's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor.

Since the early days of the silent flicks, the war epic has been a staple of Hollywood. As George S. Patton once said (and was depicted by George C. Scott saying it onscreen): "Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance." Birth of a Nation, The General, Napoleon, What Price Glory? and Wings were only a few of the many groundbreaking films of that genre and era. As the genre evolved, it diversified into different subgenres: those which were purely fiction; those which were dramatizations based on actual events where the names of the real-life persons were fictionalized, such as The Horse Soldiers, Hamburger Hill, The Bridge at Remagen and 12 O'Clock High, and those where the story is presented as nonfiction, such as The Gallant Hours, A Bridge Too Far and Patton. The dividing line between the latter two subgenres is rather blurred, as is the dividing line between truth and fiction within the last subgenre. Not even the most scrutinized fact-based script can escape some fictionalization due to the limitations of the medium and to dramatic or poetic license. Too often, however, dramatic license is used as a rationalization for sensationalizing a story or distorting the truth for political propaganda or other cynical motives.

Like any other awards, military or civilian, the Medal of Honor can at times be devalued or politically influenced. It was the only medal awarded by the Army and Navy prior to the Spanish American War and was therefore much more readily given out; many of those earlier awards were later revoked because of its inflated value. Although it is awarded in the name of Congress and is therefore popularly referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honor, each individual award does not require an act of congress, although each is scrutinized by a review board at the Department of the Army, Navy or Air Force level (prior to 1947 the War Department or Navy Department). One of the Civil War medals later revoked was that issued to the only female surgeon in the Army's organization; it was later reinstated in the 1970s at the demand of a descendant. As none of the other noncombatant Army surgeons whose medals were revoked had theirs reinstated, the authors clearly see this as a reinstatement based on nothing but political correctness. Nevertheless, with few such exceptions, the recipients of the Medal of Honor have earned this premier US military award undisputed.

In conceiving this volume, the authors came up with the names of no fewer than a dozen recipients of the Medal of Honor whose acts of heroism were depicted on film. Some of the films were biographies of the recipients, such as Sergeant York, To Hell and Back and MacArthur. Others focused on the specific mission which resulted in the award, such as The Great Locomotive Chase and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Still other films, such as The Longest Day and Gettysburg, depicted the acts of heroism within the scope of a much larger battle. The dozen or more recipients range chronologically from Jacob Parrott, the very first Medal of Honor recipient in the Civil War to Michael Patrick Murphy, one of the most recent recipients from the Global War on Terror; in rank from Private Parrott to General Douglas MacArthur; in education from grade school dropout Audie L. Murphy to college professor Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and aeronautical engineering PhD James Harold Doolittle; socioeconomically from Alvin C. York, a poor Tennessee dirt farmer, to Theodore Roosevelt Jr, son and namesake of a President of the United States. The films themselves run chronologically from 1941's Sergeant York to 2017's Called and Chosen: Father Vincent R. Capodanno. They all share one common thread: in every case, even where substantial dramatic license was used elsewhere in the film, the Medal of Honor action was depicted without deviation from the known historical fact, without need for embellishment or dramatic license. Truth is indeed stranger, and more entertaining, than fiction, and compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor do shrink to insignificance.

Interestingly, three Medals of Honor have been awarded for peacetime noncombat achievements by the US Air Force or one of its predecessor organizations. One of these feats was strictly a privately funded civilian venture, but as it caught the public's fancy and the individual was at the time a captain and pilot in the Missouri National Guard, the Medal of Honor was somehow made available. All three of these noncombatant actions were the subjects of Hollywood movies and are discussed in this volume separately from the combat actions. All three recipients, however, proved themselves in aerial combat, either before or after the fact.

This volume is divided into six sections: Classic Heroism, which covers those recipients whose wartime combat actions made up a substantial portion of a film; Peacetime Aviation, which covers the three peacetime Air Force recipients; Rejected Nominations, which covers cases where an individual was nominated for the Medal of Honor with the nomination downgraded to a lesser award, and with the act of heroism nevertheless being depicted in a film. (When this site first came online in 1997, these entries were made with the caveat that the rejection or downgrading of the Medal of Honor recommendations were clearly based on arbitrary or political considerations. The authors realize that that statement is too subjective and are relaxing that criteria for this website as of 2009.); Blown Opportunities, which discusses cases where one or more films were made that could and should have depicted the action of a Medal of Honor recipient but did not; Hollywood Abominations, which covers three cases of blatant misrepresentation (acts of commission rather than omission as in the Blown Opportunities category) on the part of Hollywood, which the authors feel trivializes the Medal of Honor or unjustly discredits certain individuals. The sixth category, Notable Fiction, discusses a few fictional films depicting an act which earns a fictional character a Medal of Honor, including in particular those films in which the character was clearly based on a real-life Medal of Honor recipient.

With a few exceptions in this volume, each individual was the subject of a separate movie. The first exception is the first group of Medal of Honor recipients, here collectively referred to as Andrews' Raiders, who were the subject of the film The Great Locomotive Chase. Similarly, in the second exception, Gary I. Gordon and Randall D. Shughart, working closely as a team, both received posthumous Medals of Honor for the same action which was depicted in Black Hawk Down. In the third case, the film MacArthur substantially depicted the actions of both its primary subject and Jonathan M. Wainwright, and the authors felt that, conversely, the historical context warranted a separate entry for Wainwright. Similarly, in the fourth case, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was one of the primary protagonists in the film Gettysburg, while his regimental color sergeant, Andrew J. Tozier, a relatively minor character in the film, also received the Medal of Honor for the same action depicted in the film. In the fifth case, five Medals of Honor were awarded for action involving what became known as the "Lost Battalion" in World War I; three of those recipients were depicted in the film The Lost Battalion and are covered collectively, but the remaining two were so misrepresented in that film that they warrant a separate page under the Blown Opportunities category! Similarly, in the sixth case, in We Were Soldiers, which depicted the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam, appropriately extensive coverage was given to Bruce P. Crandall while his second-in-command Ed W. Freeman (who ironically was awarded his Medal of Honor just prior to the release of the film, while Crandall received his five years after the release) was largely relegated to the background, and Walter Joseph Marm, the only actual Medal of Honor recipient for Ia Drang at the time the film went into production, was omitted altogether and his actions composited with those of another individual, again warranting an entry for the film under the Blown Opportunities category. In cases where the individual's action was significantly touched upon by a film other than that primarily listed, this is mentioned in the body of that entry.

Opinions expressed on these pages are strictly those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the US Army, US Air Force, or any other government agency.

This webpage is dedicated to

Theodore Roosevelt

who was denied his Medal of Honor in his lifetime and for 82 years afterward,

George S. Welch

and all others deserving of the Medal of Honor who for whatever reason never received it,

especially those who fought and died alone,

their valor witnessed only by the enemy, and by God.


Table of contents

 

Classic Heroism

The Andrews Raiders

John Basilone

Black Hawk Down: Gary Ivan Gordon and Randall David Shughart

Vincent Robert Capodanno

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Bruce Perry Crandall

James Harold Doolittle

Desmond Thomas Doss

The Lost Battalion: Charles White Whittlesey, George Gibson McMurtry and Nelson Miles Holderman

Douglas MacArthur

Audie Leon Murphy

Michael Patrick Murphy

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.

James Bond Stockdale

Andrew J. Tozier

Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright

Alvin Cullum York

 

Peacetime Aviation

Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr.

William Mitchell

Charles Elwood Yeager

 

Rejected Nominations

Guy Louis Gabaldon

Henry Andrew Mucci

George Schwartz Welch

Richard D. Winters

 

Blown Opportunities

Erwin Russell Bleckley and Harold Ernest Goettler

William Harvey Carney

Thomas Ward Custer

Ed W. Freeman and Walter Joseph Marm, Jr.

Edward Vernon Rickenbacker

 

Hollywood Abominations

Gregory Boyington

George M. Cohan--A Blatant Lie!

Pearl Harbor (2001)

 

Notable Fiction (including fiction based on the actions of John Duncan Bulkeley, Joseph Timothy O'Callahan, Mitchell Paige, Henry Erwin, John Cary Morgan and Howard Walter Gilmore)

 

About the Authors

Selected Bibliography

Your comments on this website are welcome at lpadilla@voicenet.com

Return to Lyle F. Padilla's Main Page

*****

A special friendly challenge to our British Allies and friends (or any fans of British military history and/or war movies, for that matter)!

*****

New as of 4 September 2017
*Added new entry on Vincent Robert Capodanno following the airing of the TV movie Called and Chosen: Father Vincent R. Capodanno. Also adjusted this page to indicate this is the latest movie or miniseries chronologically by this website.

New as of 26 November 2016

*Added new entry on Desmond Thomas Doss. Also updated the text of this page to reflect this addition with the film Hacksaw Ridge as the latest movie or miniseries chronologically to be covered by this website.

*Replaced screenshot of Greg Kinnear on the Bruce P. Crandall page with a larger image.

*Added additional info on Howard W. Gilmore on the Notable Fiction page.

*Added additional info on Alexander S. Webb, Alonzo H. Cushing and Frederick Fuger on the Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Andrew J. Tozier pages as other Medal of Honor recipients depicted in Gettysburg.

New as of 26 February 2014

*Added new entry on Michael Patrick Murphy. Also updated the text of this page to reflect this addition with Murphy being the latest MoH recipient chronologically and the film Lone Survivor as the latest movie or miniseries chronologically to be covered by this website. Also updated the authors' credential/signature blocks per recent changes in US Department of Defense Customs and Courtesies.

New as of 19 February 2011

*Added new entry on John Basilone. Also updated the text of this page to reflect this addition with the TV miniseries The Pacific as the latest movie or miniseries chronologically to be covered by this website, as well as other minor additions/corrections.

New as of 11 January 2011

*Updated page on Richard D. Winters to reflect his recent passing.

New as of 30 January 2009

*Added new entry on Henry A. Mucci. Also updating this page with a relaxation of the criteria for the Rejected Nominations category.

New as of 11 September 2008

* Updated the page on Ed W. Freeman and Walter Joseph Marm to reflect the passing of Major Freeman on 20 August 2008.

New as of 26 February 2007

*Added new entry on Bruce P. Crandall following the presentation of his Medal of Honor by President Bush at the White House on this date. Also updated the page on Ed W. Freeman and Walter Joseph Marm to reflect this event. Congratulations, Lt Col Crandall!

New as of 11 September 2006

*Added death date to the page on Guy Gabaldon to mark his recent passing.

New as of 30 May 2006

*Corrected the first name of Alvin York's battalion commander, Major Gonzalo E. Buxton Jr., after the authors were contacted by his grandson Mr. Ned Buxton. We had previously identified him as George Buxton based on the information in the US News and World Report special publication listed on our Bibliography page. Also corrected and clarified some minor details about the weapons York used during his Medal of Honor action.

New as of 31 October 2005

*Added Operation Pacific to the Notable Fiction page.

New as of 17 October 2005

*Added personal family photo of author Lyle F. Padilla's father conferring an Honorary PhD to General Douglas MacArthur on his last return to the Philippines in 1961.

New as of 9 October 2005

* Added death date to the page on James Bond Stockdale to mark his recent passing.

New as of 24 November 2004

* Added Twelve O'Clock High to the Notable Fiction page and added to the Bibliography page accordingly.

* Corrected year of birth for Erwin R. Bleckley.

New as of 5 October 2003

* Updated this page and the About the Authors page to reflect the fact that both authors are now officially retired from the Armed Forces of the United States.

New as of 23 December 2002

* Updated the links to Ray Castagnaro's website, here and on the About the Authors and Pearl Harbor pages, to indicate that the novel has been published and is now available!

New as of 21 August 2002

* Added photo of actor Mark McCracken to the page on Ed W. Freeman and Walter Joseph Marm.

* Added links to Ray Castagnaro's website on his soon-to-be-published novel, here and on the About the Authors and Pearl Harbor pages.

New as of 18 July 2002

* Corrected birth and death dates of Andrew J. Tozier, with slight change in the body of the text in reference to his age.

New as of 14 June 2002

* Added a special Friendly Challenge page.

New as of 11 June 2002

* Added photos of actors Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Johnny Strong to the page on Gary I. Gordon and Randall D. Shughart.

New as of 6 June 2002

* Correction regarding to which state's National Guard Charles A. Lindbergh belonged (in the above narrative on this page, as well as the Lindbergh page).

New as of 4 March 2002

* Added new entry on Ed W. Freeman and Walter Joseph Marm following the release of We Were Soldiers.

* Corrected information on the USS Franklin on the Notable Fiction page.

New as of 26 January 2002

* Added new entry on Gary I. Gordon and Randall D. Shughart to the Classic Heroism category following the release of the film Black Hawk Down.

New as of 7 December 2001

* Added two separate entries on The Lost Battalion; one in the Classic Heroism category covering Charles White Whittlesey, George G. McMurtry and Nelson Miles Holderman, and one in the Blown Opportunities category covering Erwin Russell Bleckley and Harold Ernest Goettler. Added mention of George G. McMurtry, who was a veteran of the Rough Riders, to the page on Theodore Roosevelt.

New as of 9 October 2001

* Added Richard D. Winters to the Rejected Nominations category following the release of the HBO TV miniseries Band of Brothers.

New as of 17 August 2001

* Corrected birth and death years of William Carney after an article written by his great-great nephew, Carl Cruz, was forwarded to the authors by Dr. Douglas K. Fidler, librarian at the Air National Guard Training & Technical Center at McGhee-Tyson ANGB, TN.

New as of 18 July 2001

*Added links to Ray Castagnaro's website containing photos from the authors' visit to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, on the Thomas Ward Custer page and the About the Authors page.

*Added hyperlinks to all pages cited in this Updates section.

New as of 4 July 2001:

*Added current photo of the authors to the Thomas Ward Custer page and the About the Authors page.

New as of 5 June 2001:

*Added Pearl Harbor (2001) to the Hollywood Abominations category, and adjusted the pages on James H. Doolittle and George S. Welch to reflect this addition. (Other updated information on George S. Welch also.)

New as of 19 January 2001:

*Moved Theodore Roosevelt from the Rejected Nominations section to the Classic Heroism section following the awarding of his Medal of Honor on 16 January 2001, over 102 years after the action for which he received it.

*Adjusted the Theodore Roosevelt Jr. page to reflect the fact that he and TR are now the second father-and-son pair of Medal of Honor recipients, and also corrected information on the unit of assignment of Quentin Roosevelt during World War I.

*Adjusted the Douglas MacArthur page to reflect the fact that he and Arthur MacArthur are now no longer the only father-and-son pair of Medal of Honor recipients. Also corrected the age at which author L.F. Padilla met General MacArthur.

*Corrected the year of birth of George S. Welch, after the authors had been contacted by his son Jolyon.

*Added Guy Gabaldon to the Rejected Nominations section.

*Corrected some factual errors pertaining to other dual MoH recipients on the Thomas Ward Custer page.

*Corrected nomenclature of the Hellcat tank destroyer on the Audie Leon Murphy page.

*Clarified information on the World War II kills of Charles A. Lindbergh.

*Added remarks on the nature of the medals awarded to the three Peacetime Aviation recipients.

*Added The Wild Blue Yonder to the Notable Fiction page.