AND A FATHER’S BITTER ANGUISH
When a bereaved father refused to accept the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to his fallen son during the Korean War, it caused shock waves across the nation. But that is only the beginning of the story.
J. Halsey McGovern, his wife Marguerite, and their six children comprised a close family in a modest but happy home in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D. C. But on January 30th, 1951, their world changed forever. On that fateful date, Halsey learned that his son Robert was killed in action in Korea. Eleven days later, another son, Francis, was also killed in the conflict. For his heroic action Robert was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest wartime distinction. Francis, called by his middle name, Jerome, was awarded the Silver Star, another high medal for valor. Broken-hearted by the loss of his two sons within days of each other, the distressed father refused to accept either award.
In a letter to the Army turning down the medals, Halsey McGovern wrote that the failure of the U. S. government to support the troops in the field by an all-out war effort “sears the soul.” The distraught father also told reporters “I don’t think Truman is worthy to confer honors on my boys, or anyone’s boys.” Even when several members of Congress offered to present the medals, Halsey still refused. However, writing to relatives, he did acknowledge that the citation accompanying Robert’s medal “will make you proud of him and of all the American kids who die and have died over there.”
Robert and Jerome McGovern were separated in age by two years (Robert being the elder). They grew up sharing an unusual similarity in their lives, not only in their upbringing, but in their military careers, and even in their deaths. Both young men attended St. Gabriel’s Grade School and then St. John’s College High School, where they became members of its Cadet Corps. Upon graduation, both joined the Army, and after completing basic training, enrolled in Officer Candidate School. Robert then attended Airborne School, completing parachute training, and Jerome followed suit. Both men eventually wound up assigned to the 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment in Japan. With the advent of the Korean War, the regiment was stripped of many of its officers to reinforce hard-pressed units in Korea. Robert was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division, and Jerome to the 7th Infantry Division.
The morning of January 30, 1951 dawned gray and cold. The men of Company A, 5th Cavalry struggled to work out the stiffness that came from sleeping out in below-zero weather by swallowing multiple cups of coffee and heavy helpings of powdered eggs. The company’s mission that day was to seize Hill 312, a fortified enemy position, close by, but concealed by a heavy morning mist. The 1st and 2nd Platoons would lead the assault, the 2nd Platoon commanded by Lieutenant Robert McGovern.
After more than an hour of uphill slogging through the dense fog, the air suddenly cleared, revealing the crest of the hill. Enemy fire broke out at once, and the 2nd Platoon began moving up the steep incline against the strongest part of the Chinese defenses. McGovern was out in front by more than twenty yards and his platoon scrambled frantically trying to keep up with him. He was caught in a burst of fire, fell, but regained his feet and continued to lead his men forward. Another burst of fire shot his carbine out of his hands. Disregarding his wounds and weakened condition, he drew his pistol and charged a machinegun emplacement which was raking his men. Firing his pistol and throwing grenades, he killed seven enemy soldiers before falling mortally wounded in front of the gun he had silenced. The following words from his Medal of Honor Citation tell the rest of the story.
Lieutenant McGovern’s incredible display of valor imbued his men with indomitable resolution to avenge his death. Fixing bayonets and throwing grenades, they charged with such ferocity that hostile positions were overrun and the enemy routed from the hill. The inspirational leadership, unflinching courage, and intrepid actions of First Lieutenant McGovern reflected utmost glory on himself and the honored tradition of the military services.
On February 10, 1951, in another sector of the front, and unaware that his brother had been killed eleven days earlier, Second Lieutenant Jerome McGovern prepared to lead his platoon in an assault upon enemy positions on Hill 442. After advancing approximately 300 yards, the company was halted by intense mortar and gunfire. Despite being wounded at this time, McGovern reorganized his platoon and resumed the assault. Reaching the crest of the hill first, as he turned to urge his men on, he was killed by enemy fire.
Inspired by his heroic conduct and absolute fearlessness, his Silver Star citation reads, the platoon followed him in a fierce charge upon the hostile positions. The gallantry and inspirational leadership displayed by Lieutenant McGovern reflect great credit upon him and the military service.
The McGovern brothers died 15 miles and 11 days apart, in remarkably similar circumstances. Both commanded platoons attacking fortified hills, and both led the charge well ahead of their men. Both officers were wounded yet continued to lead the assault, and both died on the ramparts of the enemy position. Finally, both were awarded posthumous medals for heroism. Halsey McGovern died in 1983 at the age of 97, adamant to the end in refusing to accept the awards earned by his sons. After his death, the surviving McGovern children petitioned the Army to issue the medals, and they were presented to St. John’s College High School. The school has established a Hall of Honor where their medals and citations are permanently on display. Its Cadet Corps Drill Team is now known as The McGovern Rifles. New recruits to the Corps are required to memorize portions of the citations. In 2003, Charles, the youngest of the four McGovern brothers, discovered that a U. S. Army base in Bosnia was named in honor of Robert. “I’ve almost felt compelled to do it,” he said, making a special trip to visit Camp McGovern. After a ceremony for their visitor, the camp commander gave Charlie a tour of the base, including a sign bearing the name and picture of his brother, along with a plaque describing his heroic action. When they lowered the flag that day they presented it to Charlie.
Robert and Jerome McGovern were laid to rest side by side in Arlington National Cemetery. Inscribed on their joint tombstone is a tribute to them written by their father: “To their conscience they were true and had the genius to be men.”
Colonel Richard A. McMahon (U. S. Army, retired) was a fellow platoon leader in Company A, 5th Cavalry Regiment in the same action on the day that Lieutenant Robert McGovern was killed. He is the author of The Dark Side of Glory, a novel of the Korean War, which was awarded the 2014 Gold Medal for historical fiction by the Military Writers Society of America.
Here we go again. Violence has broken out in the Ukraine, and Russia has occupied the Crimean Peninsula to “protect” its mainly Russian-speaking population. War hawks in the United States are having a field day. Sen. John McCain demands that Obama announce consequences for Putin’s regime. Others call for everything from billion-dollar aid packages, to the dispatching of a U. S. Naval flotilla to the Black Sea.
Please folks, can we have a little perspective here? Not only are the hawks ignoring reality, but history as well. Ukrainians are themselves divided—Easterners favoring alignment with Russia, while Westerners prefer association with the EU. For most Russians, the vast region surrounding Kiev represents the cradle of their history and culture. Ever since Prince Vladimir consolidated the Kievan state in the 10th century, Ukraine has either been part of, or closely associated with Russia. That’s more than a thousand years of shared history. Kiev was the first capital of Russia. It’s now in a foreign country. That’s a sticky situation. Let’s leave this one to them to work out for themselves. It’s their backyard, not ours.
Arriving late, I saw to my disappointment that all lower bunks were already taken. As I started to pull myself into an upper bunk, my foot slipped, and I banged my face hard on the iron bed rail. As I stumbled backwards, the man in the lower bunk rose.
“You’re bleeding,” he said. “Lemmee see that.”
It was autumn 1946. I had joined the Army and been sent to a reception center at Fort Dix, New Jersey. We recruits had just been issued our uniforms and assigned to our barracks. My new bunk-mate dabbed at my split lip with his new Army olive-drab handkerchief and handed it to me.
“You take the lower one.”
With that, he raised his 6-foot-plus frame effortlessly into the upper bunk. From that day on we were inseparable. It wasn’t by design, it was just something that happened. I don’t remember why the rest of the barracks began calling us “Batman and Robin.” It could have been because of the difference in our height (I was a good 8 inches shorter than he was) and because we were always together. But, whatever the reason, the names stuck. We even called each other that.
Normally, we would have only been at Dix a few days, then further assigned to a basic training center. But a large number of draftees and volunteers had been mustered to replace the men who had won the war, and who were now being discharged by thousands per day, and all training centers were full. We would spend almost a month at Dix, learning the most basic of the basic, while waiting for a real training center to beckon. Whatever the activity, Batman and I were side by side. Even if one of us was selected for an unpleasant duty, the other would volunteer to go along. It was almost fun to be on KP with Batman, as we swabbed the floor while he led us in the ribald verses of I Used to Work in Chicago.
Finally the day came when we received our orders, assigning us to basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky—all of us, that is, except one. I was devastated to learn that Batman was not on the list. Of course, we soon realized why. We were all Caucasians. Batman was African American. It was a segregated Army in those days, and Batman would go to a separate training center and be then assigned to a segregated unit. We parted—tearfully, I’m not ashamed to admit—vowing to keep in touch. He wrote as soon as he joined his new unit, and I wrote back. Gradually, though, as our paths diverged, the letters stopped. When I tried later to renew the correspondence, I realized I could no longer remember his real name. The fog of time had intervened, as it probably had for him, too.
I would go on to spend more than 33 years in the Army, acquiring many fine friends and wonderful memories. But one of my fondest recollections will always be of the short time spent with my first true comrade in those very early days when I was Robin.
Batman, are you out there?
Some time ago our hiking club was asked to help search for a lost dog. Usually, we are asked to help search for lost people, and we can be pretty good at it. When two young women went missing in a forested valley for more than five days, it was our club that found them and brought them to safety. But we had never been asked to find a lost dog, and the turnout of volunteers was small. It might have been even smaller, except that the owner, accompanied by two tearful, broken-hearted young children, had appealed over the local TV station the evening before.
We met with the owner at the trailhead at about 10 A.M. and learned we were looking for a small, brown and white Cavalier King Charles spaniel named Buddy. I’d never heard of the breed, but with a mouthful like that, it had to be a pretty special dog. We gathered around a topo map, divided the area of search into four sectors, and assigned a two-man team to each. The owner would make a separate search, and he and two mournful kids watched as eight of us marched off into the woods.
Initially, we made lots of noise. Calls of “Here, Buddy! Here, boy!” resounded through the forest, as we hoped the dog would hear us and respond. As the trail wound its way uphill and around gulches, we relied on our small hand-held radios to maintain contact, as we spread out to cover as much ground as we could. Lunch time came and went, no dog. Two hours of searching after lunch, still no dog. At 3 P.M. our teams began calling off the search and going home. By 4 P.M. my partner and I were the last team in the field, and we, too, decided to leave.
On the way out we passed a deep gulch with a sharp rise on the other side. I knew that a small, brush-covered plateau lay above. On the way in, none of us had been anxious to go up there, but now I had a feeling about it. My partner declined to check it out with me, and continued on his way. There was no reason not to, we were in familiar territory. Reaching the top of the plateau, I pushed through the tangled brush, stopping often to listen. Silence. I called the dog’s name. Nothing. Circling around, I poked into gullies and thickets. Nada. Dejected, I made my way back to the trail and headed out once more. So much for having a feeling.
Since the trail was a familiar one, I was pretty much in my zen mode coming out. About 5 minutes from the trail head, I heard a noise behind me and turned. It was Buddy, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, wagging his royal tail. I have no idea how long he had been following me. At the parking lot, cheers from my compatriots and shrieks of joy from the kids greeted us as His Majesty bounded into their arms. Everyone crowded round, offering praise, and wanting to know more about my dog-finding skills. Modestly, I declined to expound on my success.
Sometimes, when we seek something and can’t find it, it winds up finding us.
This year is the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. Often called our forgotten war, Korea has faded from view, overshadowed by Vietnam, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The extended combat in jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam, and the frustration of our objectives in the Middle East, remain vivid in our collective national memory, but little is remembered about the struggle in the hot summers and frigid winters of the Korean peninsula. In three years of fighting, United States forces in Korea suffered 128,650 casualties, counting both killed and wounded. The figures for Vietnam are 211,454, but this was over a period of ten years, indicating a casualty rate in Korea almost twice as high as Vietnam. Looking back sixty years later, we might ask ourselves: What did we achieve? Did we learn anything?
The American intervention in Korea caused none of the bitter divisions and public demonstrations which beset our country over Vietnam. The sudden attack by North Korea upon the south was a clear act of aggression, recognized as such by the United Nations. It was perceived as a threat to U. S. security, as American occupation forces across the Korean Strait in Japan were less than 160 miles away. After some initial setbacks, U. S. and U. N. forces quickly liberated South Korea, and advanced into the North to within a few miles of the Chinese border. Only massive intervention by the Chinese prevented the destruction of the North Korean regime, and caused the withdrawal of U. N. forces back to the 38th parallel, the original line of demarcation between the North and the South. Following two more years of stalemated warfare, an armistice was finally signed in 1953.
What did we achieve? Although we did not defeat North Korea or its Chinese allies, we did rescue South Korea. In doing so, we accomplished our objective, which was to eject the invader from South Korean soil, and to restore the “status quo ante,” the previous border between the two powers. As we well know, South Korea went on to become an economic giant and a vibrant democracy. But it was to be our last success. In Vietnam, we were unable to defeat the North Vietnamese, and, following the departure of American forces, South Vietnam was quickly overrun by the North. As we continue to withdraw from our ill-conceived intervention, Iraq and Afghanistan are in political and economic turmoil, threatened by Islamist extremist groups opposed to Western law and culture. Only our invasions of the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Panama achieved any measure of success. Unfortunately, like the school bully, we seem to win only when we pick on the little guys.
It is time to recognize that when we meddle in the affairs of nations who resent our interference, when we try to bring democracy to people who don’t want it, and when we intervene in events where our national interest is not at stake, we will not succeed.
Is anyone in Washington listening?
The failure of France to support the United States in the war against Iraq has resulted in a flurry of vitriolic comments that continues to this day, impugning everything from French wine to French honor. One columnist even called the French “cheese-eating monkeys.” (Don’t Americans eat cheese?). It’s understandable that some Americans might be miffed that their oldest ally refused to support our war against Saddam, even though, in retrospect, it looks like they made the right choice. Unfairly, this feeling has resulted in caustic jokes and remarks disparaging French valor and fighting performance in World War II.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, in World War II France lost 213,324 military personnel killed in only 15 months of warfare. Great Britain, after six years of war, suffered 264,443 killed, and the United States lost 292,131 after a two-front war lasting almost four years. The great disparity in these figures, even though they include Free French losses during the remainder of the war, certainly show that the French military fought fiercely to defend the country, especially since most of the fighting took place in the six-week period of the German invasion.
One of the most unfair jokes making the rounds on the Internet is: “Question: How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris? Answer: No one knows. It’s never been done.” Sorry, but it has been done. In World War I, the Second Battle of the Somme had Paris as its objective. Despite an all-out German assault, and heavy French and British losses, the city was successfully defended. In the Franco-Prussian War, when the city was besieged by Prussian troops, Paris held out for more than four months, giving up only after its population was starving and forced to eat rats.
So if we want to complain about the French not supporting us in Iraq, fine. But let’s remember one thing. Without the French, there would be no United States of America. It was French arms, equipment, and money that allowed us to fight Britain, the greatest military power of the time. There were more French soldiers than Americans at Yorktown, the battle that ended the Revolutionary War, and it was the French Navy that prevented the British from reinforcing.
If we must bash the French, let’s not do so by deriding the courage of a nation with a military heritage as proud as our own. If we must, we can stop eating French cheese, stop drinking French wine, and I suppose we can rename French fries. But, please folks, let’s not send back the Statue of Liberty.
OPEN LETTER TO A SOPHOMORE
Recently, our local newspaper reported that a high school sophomore told a commission studying student performance standards that she couldn’t understand why she had to study history, considering that her career goal was to be a lawyer. Below is my open letter to that student.
Ever since your comments appeared in the paper, I’ve been thinking of your plight and the problems you are having with the school system. When you said that it’s dumb to study Julius Caesar because you want to be a lawyer, and you aren’t going to need that stuff in the courtroom, I can sympathize with you. History is water under the bridge. No sense trying to learn from other people’s mistakes. I bet those teachers of yours even want you to study math, when everybody knows that you sure won’t have to use that in court. And why bother with geography? If the lady selected to represent our state at the Presidential Inaugural Ball doesn’t know where Washington, D.C. is, why should you? You know, I bet those darn teachers even want you to read books. Why? If you want to know something, it’s all there with a tap on your iPhone. Besides, as you said, it’s a lot more fun, to watch TV.
But you know something, soph? Law schools don’t have enough room to accept all the students who apply. So they wind up taking the best students, and those scoring highest on the various scholastic aptitude tests. And when the time comes for you to take those tests, your iPhone isn’t going to be there to tap. The applicants who get in to law school are going to be those who know something about history, know that our nation’s capital is not somewhere on the West Coast, read books, and may even have heard of Julius Caesar. But cheer up, soph. You won’t get in to law school, but so what? You can always watch Bachelorette with your friends, right?
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