Author: Larry Smith

Title: “Beyond Glory”

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co. 2003. 377 pages of text with photos

In this book, Larry Smith writes of the 24 interviews he conducted with service members who were awarded the Medal of Honor — six from World War II, seven from the Korean War and 11 from the Vietnam War. When he wrote the preface in November 2002, there were 142 living Medal of Honor recipients. Currently, there are 71 living recipients, including 13 from the war in Afghanistan.

“The principal criteria for receiving the Medal of Honor have to do with displaying ‘intrepidity’ at the risk of life ‘above and beyond’ the call of duty in military action. The deed must be conspicuous, with incontestable proof of performance," Smith wrote.

Though Smith never served in the military and he took his children to Washington to protest against the Vietnam War, he “found myself choking up at the sacrifice in their actions and the power of their words.”

In the interviews, these recipients opened up to Smith about the action for which they received the Medal of Honor. All of the citations are fully set forth at the end of this book. Reading the cold words of these citations I often found them to be somewhat different from their descriptions of what happened, and they often disagreed with some of what is written in the citation. Often the citation is understated. All of them say they were simply doing their job, and they reacted spontaneously following the training they had received.

A recent movie called “Hacksaw Ridge” portrays Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who would not carry or use a weapon, but who served as a medic in Okinawa in the 77th Infantry Division during World War II. His battalion climbed a cliff to assault the Japanese. Suffering casualties, they retreated back down the cliff, but Doss stayed to help. The citation states he lowered 75 wounded men to safety. Doss told Smith he did not know how many he had lowered to safety.

The U.S. Army wanted the citation to read 100, but Doss said, “I don’t see how it could possibly be more than 50. So they’re the ones who changed it from 100. I wanted 50, and they made it 75. All I want to say is I was just thankful the Lord was able to use me, and forget the number. It’s not the number: It’s doing the best you can.” 

In addition to reacting as trained and with great courage, all of these recipients share in common one extra thing — luck. Air Force Lt. Col. Joe Jackson was flying a C-123 over a forward base in Vietnam that was being overrun. Eight other aircraft had been shot down trying to evacuate the last three men. Jackson spotted them, landing his aircraft right where they were taking cover. There was gunfire and explosions all over the place with wreckage on the now-shortened runway. The three guys jumped in the plane and it quickly took off. There was not one single bullet hole in Jackson’s airplane.

As you read these interviews and the citations for each recipient, and you consider the requirement that each act must be “conspicuous, with incontestable proof of performance,” you can only wonder at all of the incredible acts of courage and sacrifice in actions where people were killed to the last man, or where no witness survived. And it helps to have the citation well written and pushed by someone high in the chain of command.

The stories of these 24 men are inspiring as well as incredible. When you raise your hand and take the oath of military service, you give the government a blank check on your life. All of these heroes were following orders when they acted in combat “above and beyond the call of duty.” These are remarkable stories and this book is well worth reading.

Bob Wefald is a retired North Dakota State District Court Judge. He became a lawyer in 1970. His career included serving a year as a law clerk, four years as attorney general, more than 23 years in private practice in Bismarck and 12 years as a judge. He served as an officer in the Navy for three years of active duty plus 24 years in the Navy Reserve.