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.