Our annual holiday, Memorial Day, is fast approaching. Formerly known as Decoration day it is designed to honor those soldiers who have been lost in battle through the years. In observance of that fact the headstones or grave markers of deceased veterans, even those not killed in combat,  in cemeteries across the land are decorated with American flags. Some organizations devote themselves to assuring this occurs as many veterans do not have survivors capable of doing so individually.

Aside from this purpose I believe most Americans take this opportunity, much as they do on Veterans’ day in November, to thank and remember all those who have served in our armed forces.

It has become common, even passe, to deem all of these people heroes. Yet to me that somehow renders the term “hero” trite. There are millions of men and women who have taken a military oath who never faced hostile action in which their personal safety was threatened. Such is the nature of service in wartime and, of course, in times of peace.

I say that not to denigrate this service but to emphasize how extraordinary the actions of four men were. These men were all awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for facing death in war and performing above and beyond the standards expected  of all  our citizens who serve.

Two of these men became famous, indeed had movies made about them. The remaining two I find easier to relate to for reasons that will become apparent.


Born in Tennesse in 1887, York was the third of eleven children. His father died in 1911. With his two older brothers already married, York assumed the role of providing for his mother and younger siblings still at home.

He worked railroad construction and as a logger and did his work quite well. However, he was an alcoholic and frequent brawler which resulted in several arrests.

His mother was very religious, belonging to a small Christian sect which eschewed violence. Alvin attended services regularly and, after a late 1914 revival meeting, he fully converted to this denomination on January 1, 1915.

As America’s impending participation in World War I loomed, York pondered whether he himself could serve, given his now full blown religious beliefs.

In 1917, as required, he registered for the draft but indicated that he was a conscientious objector. That status was denied as was his appeal. York enlisted and while undergoing training in Georgia he spoke with officers in his command hierarchy about his reluctance to fight and the conflicts with war he found in the Bible. Granted a ten day leave to make his decision, York returned to duty finally convinced of his need to fight.

During an attack by his battalion to secure German positions along the Decauville rail-line north of Chatel-Chéhéry, France, on October 8, 1918, York’s actions earned him the Medal of Honor.

His Medal of Honor citation reads:

After his platoon suffered heavy casualties and 3 other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading 7 men, he charged with great daring a machine gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with 4 officers and 128 men and several guns.
Alvin York won a total of fifty medals. In 1941 the movie about his heroics, Sergeant York, debuted. Having Gary Cooper win an Oscar for playing you on screen only adds to your fame. Basically whatever money he received for the movie and for the numerous public appearances he made went to worthy causes, not to line his own pockets.
Like York, Murphy was from a large family, the sixth of twelve children born to a poor Texas sharecropper.
Unlike York, Audie avidly sought to fight in World War II, trying to enlist right after Pearl Harbor but rejected because he was too young. He again tried to enlist but was again rejected, this time due to his slight stature. He was 5′ 5 ” tall and weighed but 110 pounds.
Finally the Army accepted him but after he passed out in training his commanding officer prepared to send him to cooks and bakers school. His persistance put him back in combat training and he was eventually shipped overseas in early 1943 to Morocco. His first taste of combat was in the invasion of Sicily in June of that year and he was promoted to Corporal.
He saw extensive action in Italy and was also hospitalized with malaria, a disease which plagued him throughout his service. He received another promotion to sergeant and was a platoon sergeant as his division fought in France in August 1944. In combat he performed well enough to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and two Siver Stars. In addition his wounds brought him three Purple Hearts and he also received a battlefield commission to second lieutenant and  platoon commander.
What occurred on January 26, 1945 brought him this Medal of Honor citation:
Second Lt. Murphy commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. 2d Lt. Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position in a woods, while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him, to his right, one of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. 2d Lt. Murphy continued to direct artillery fire, which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, 2d Lt. Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer, which was in danger of blowing up at any moment, and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to German fire from three sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate 2d Lt. Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad that was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards, only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound, but ignored it and continued his single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way back to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack, which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he killed or wounded about 50. 2d Lt. Murphy’s indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction, and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy’s objective
Murphy was recognized as the most decorated soldier of WW II. He returned to the country with much acclaim including a Life Magazine cover story, parades in his home state of Texas, and an invitation from Jimmy Cagney to try his luck in the movies in Hollywood.
He met with mixed success as a movie star but two roles stand out. The first was his portrayal of protagonist Henry Fleming in the film adaptation of Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage. Unlike Murphy in real life Fleming had doubts of his own personal courage and ran from battle, before finally finding it within himself to act courageously.
The second role saw Murphy portraying himself in To Hell and Back, based on his best selling (and ghost written) autobiography. Though his actions are duly chronicled, Murphy in no way appears to be seeking self-aggrandizement in either book or film as the loss of numerous of his friends and their equal courage is depicted.
Joe Marm was born in Washington, Pa. my home town, in November 1941, just two months after my brother. Marm’s father, Walter, was a well-known Pa. State Police officer in the area. Marm went to a different high school but I know people who grew up with him and/or knew the family and have nothing but good things to say.
Unlike York and Murphy, Marm was college educated, being a 1964 graduate of Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University where he majored in finance. Instead of becoming a banker, Marm enlisted in the Army so he could become an officer. He trained as a Ranger and was with the 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division when it became one of the first ground combat units sent to Vietnam in 1965.
On Nov. 14th of that year, Marm and his cohorts were dropped by helicopter into LZ X-Ray, a football field-sized landing zone in the Ia drang Valley in Vietnam where they would become the first U.S. ground troops to engage North Vietnamese regular army troops in battle.
If this reference seems obscure perhaps you have read the book about that battle, We Were Soldiers Once…And Young by war journalist Joe Galloway and Lt. Col. Hal Moore, the commanding officer.
(If you watch or have watched the History Channel series Vietnam in HD, this battle is depicted in one episode and Galloway appears throughout.)
The 2002 movie We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson as Moore is based on the book and reasonably accurate by Hollywood standards.
Lt. Marm’s actions in that 4 day adventure are briefly captured in the movie but he goes unnamed.
Here is his Medal of Honor citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. As a platoon leader in the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), 1st Lt. Marm demonstrated indomitable courage during a combat operation. His company was moving through the valley to relieve a friendly unit surrounded by an enemy force of estimated regimental size. 1st Lt. Marm led his platoon through withering fire until they were finally forced to take cover. Realizing that his platoon could not hold very long, and seeing four enemy soldiers moving into his position, he moved quickly under heavy fire and annihilated all 4. Then, seeing that his platoon was receiving intense fire from a concealed machine gun, he deliberately exposed himself to draw its fire. Thus locating its position, he attempted to destroy it with an antitank weapon. Although he inflicted casualties, the weapon did not silence the enemy fire. Quickly, disregarding the intense fire directed on him and his platoon, he charged 30 meters across open ground, and hurled grenades into the enemy position, killing some of the 8 insurgents manning it. Although severely wounded, when his grenades were expended, armed with only a rifle, he continued the momentum of his assault on the position and killed the remainder of the enemy. 1st Lt. Marm’s selfless actions reduced the fire on his platoon, broke the enemy assault, and rallied his unit to continue toward the accomplishment of this mission. 1st Lt. Marm’s gallantry on the battlefield and his extraordinary intrepidity at the risk of his life are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.,_Jr.

In contrast to our first two heroes, Joe Marm is not famous. He also made a career of the military, finally retiring in 1995 as a colonel.

Never on speaking tours or in movies himself, Marm, in this 2000 Post-Gazette profile, described himself this way:

“I’m just an average, run-of-the-mill guy,” the retired career officer said in an interview yesterday from his home in Fremont, N.C., where he works in his wife’s hog farming business.

He was shot in the jaw, which shattered, and visual remains of that wound survive. This is how he looked at his award.

“I was really there just to lead them and set the example and do the best I could,” Marm said. “I always say I wear the medal for all those brave men who were in that battle whose actions go unsung. My actions happened to be observed.”

I would say he set an excellent example and represents these men well.


Tom Bennett differs from these other men in several ways, yet shares some notable characteristics.

Like York, Bennett questioned whether he could serve as he was a champion of peace. Unlike York he successfully registered as a conscientious objector during Vietnam. Yet, he joined the military, becoming a medic.

So when he performed the actions that earned him the Medal, he did so not by killing the enemy, but by saving the lives of his fellow soldiers.

In a way I feel a great affinity for Tom Bennett. He was my age, being born in 1947 just three months or so before me. He was from my adopted hometown of Morgantown, W.Va. and attended WVU while I was here. There is an slight chance we would have met but there is no way of knowing. I do, however, know people he was in school with.

That is as far as I will travel to compare myself to him. I’m not even in the same ballpark.

Tom was raised a Southern Baptist but believed in the equality of all religions. He was very much against war and especially the Vietnam War. But he was less than diligent in his studies and went on academic probation which meant he would lose his student draft deferment and possibly be drafted.

This will do his story more justice than any summary I can present.

In 1969 he was shipped to Vietnam. Though the unit he was assigned to had escaped major casualties to date, new offensives soon put them in harm’s way.

In battle on February 9, Tom earned his Medal of honor with this citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Cpl. Bennett distinguished himself while serving as a platoon medical aidman with the 2d Platoon, Company B, during a reconnaissance-in-force mission. On 9 February the platoon was moving to assist the 1st Platoon of Company D which had run into a North Vietnamese ambush when it became heavily engaged by the intense small arms, automatic weapons, mortar and rocket fire from a well fortified and numerically superior enemy unit. In the initial barrage of fire, 3 of the point members of the platoon fell wounded. Cpl. Bennett, with complete disregard for his safety, ran through the heavy fire to his fallen comrades, administered life-saving first aid under fire and then made repeated trips carrying the wounded men to positions of relative safety from which they would be medically evacuated from the battle position. Cpl. Bennett repeatedly braved the intense enemy fire moving across open areas to give aid and comfort to his wounded comrades. He valiantly exposed himself to the heavy fire in order to retrieve the bodies of several fallen personnel. Throughout the night and following day, Cpl. Bennett moved from position to position treating and comforting the several personnel who had suffered shrapnel and gunshot wounds. On 11 February, Company B again moved in an assault on the well fortified enemy positions and became heavily engaged with the numerically superior enemy force. Five members of the company fell wounded in the initial assault. Cpl. Bennett ran to their aid without regard to the heavy fire. He treated 1 wounded comrade and began running toward another seriously wounded man. Although the wounded man was located forward of the company position covered by heavy enemy grazing fire and Cpl. Bennett was warned that it was impossible to reach the position, he leaped forward with complete disregard for his safety to save his comrade’s life. In attempting to save his fellow soldier, he was mortally wounded. Cpl. Bennett’s undaunted concern for his comrades at the cost of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.

The biggest difference between him and our other honorees is he did not receive his award at the hands of an officer or the President. Just two days after the action for which he was cited, Tom Bennett was killed, Feb. 11, 1969.

He was only the second conscientious objector ever to receive the Medal Of Honor, the first being in WW II.

The sacrifice Tom Bennett made, not merely of his physical life but of the beliefs that possibly could have spared him had he not felt he had a larger duty, has been recognized in many ways.

In 1988 a youth center at Schofield Barracks in Oahu, Hawaii was named in his honor.

The Bennett Health Clinic at Fort Hood, Texas was dedicated in his honor in 1997.

The 1980 book Peaceful Patriot is about him.

A building in downtown Morgantown, Bennett House, is named for him.

One of the dormitories on WVU’s Evansdale camus was renamed Bennett Tower in 1990.

The bridge that carries I-79 over the Monongahela River just south of town is named for him.

Those are the heroes I present to you.

These men merit your respect, their deeds merit your admiration, and the circumstances under which they earned this singular recognition merit your consideration on the usefulness of war. Their modesty and self-effacement merit your praise.

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