originally published November 11, 2013
You’ve probably never heard of Charles Davis Lucas.
Like most recipients of the Victoria Cross, the highest honor awardable to members of the British and Commonwealth military forces, his name is far from household. But that’s what today is about: slapping a virtual high-five with the ghosts of wars gone by, and lending a little praise and attention to the brave folks who stared potential death and/or dismemberment in the face and said, “Fuck it. I’m going after the bad guys.”
Charles Davis Lucas fought in the Crimean War, which was yet another conflict over religion and the Holy Land and all that. This time it was the Brits, French and Ottomans battling it out with the Russians back in 1853-56. Charles was aboard the Hecla, a ship in the Baltic Sea, where they were taking fire from a Finnish fort called Bumarsund. A shell landed on the ship’s deck with the fuse still hissing, and whomever was in charge ordered all hands to lay flat and prepare for the blast.
Not Charles. Charles ran up, grabbed the shell, and heaved it overboard where it exploded before it even hit the water. No one was killed, no one was injured, and it was all thanks to Charles disobeying orders and doing something that, by most objective standards was completely insane. His was the first act of bravery to earn the Victoria’s Cross.
Twenty-one years old. Another Brit, this time up against the Ottoman Army in the muck of World War I. The enemy was breathing down the neck of his gang of Royal Scots Fusiliers on a December day in 1917, when Stanley Henry Parry Boughey decided he’d had enough. He grabbed an armful of tossable bombs and ran at the bad guys, heaving blasts all over the place and somehow managing to not get knocked off his feet by a bullet.
Roughly 30 Ottomans dropped their weapons to surrender – nobody wanted to mess with this Rambo-ass sonofabitch. When Stanley turned to run back and grab more bombs that pesky bullet finally found him, though by then the momentum of the battle had turned. He also received the Victoria Cross, but it was an instant heirloom; Stanley died three days later.
That child in the photo there? He got a Victoria Cross as well, in fact he’s the youngest to have earned one during World War II. Dennis Donnini and his battalion were part of Operation Blackcock (don’t Google that – you’ll find links to stuff that has nothing to do with war). This was early 1945, when things weren’t looking too good for the Germans. Dennis and his squad were sent to attack the village of Stein in Germany, not far from the Dutch border. They were leaving their trench when shots were fired from a nearby house. It was an ambush.
Dennis was hit in the head – probably just the helmet, since he was only knocked unconscious. Might have been a flesh wound; the details are a little sketchy here. Anyway, Dennis came to, scampered down the road, then tossed a grenade through a window of the house, sending the enemy scattering. He took another bullet, but kept firing at the enemy until a third bullet hit a grenade strapped to Dennis’s body, sending him onto his next life.
Nineteen years old and Dennis squished more bad-assery into a few moments of action than most of us exude in our entire lives.
In America the most significant piece of medal you can slap onto a uniform is the Congressional Medal of Honor. John J. Kelly was such an incalculable ass-kicker he was awarded the medal twice. For the same act.
How amazing was John J. Kelly? While taking heavy fire at Mont Blanc Ridge in France during World War I, he ran through enemy fire by himself to the enemy’s machine gun nest. He lobbed a grenade which took out the gunner, shot another guy with his pistol, then ran back through no man’s land with eight prisoners from the other side. For this he was awarded the Medal of Honor from the Army as well as the Navy.
They guy also got a Purple Heart, four Silver Stars, as well as bravery medals from France and Italy. Oh, and he lived until 1957 so he had plenty of years to reflect upon his own awesomeness.
Douglas Munro is the only member of the US Coast Guard to have received the Medal of Honor. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, his family relocated to Vancouver, Washington when Douglas was an infant, possibly because his father was a big fan of Vancouvers. Douglas enlisted in the Coast Guard, but found himself Officer-in-Charge when a fleet of Japanese boats had an entire battalion of Marines pinned at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal in September of 1942.
Douglas led the evacuation of 500 Marines, directing his craft between the beachhead and the Japanese guns as a diversion to draw the fire away from the evacuees. This cost Douglas his life, but seriously… 500 Marines? Not surprisingly, the new Coast Guard headquarters was renamed (just this year) the Douglas A. Munro Coast Guard Headquarters Building.
Over 3400 men have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Number of women… one. This is Mary Edwards Walker, a woman who rightfully has had at least five buildings and a US Liberty ship named after her. Mary was a doctor from Oswego, New York, in a time when few women were achieving such lofty career goals. She joined up with the Union Army when the Civil War broke out, volunteering as a surgeon. She crossed enemy lines to treat some wounded civilians and wound up arrested by the Confederate Army as a spy.
She spent a few months locked up, but was released in August of 1864 as part of a prisoner exchange. She remains not only the lone female recipient of the Medal of Honor, but one of only eight civilians with such bragging rights. After the war, Mary continued to raise the bar of excellence as a writer and lecturer, pushing such far-flung ideas as health care, women’s rights and temperance. Okay, nobody’s perfect – she may have pushed for Prohibition, but she is also seen as a key player in the decades-long fight to grant women the right to vote. Unfortunately she died about a year before that would happen.
So many names deserve a mention here – I feel bad that I can only squeeze six into today’s kilograph. But on behalf of those of us who will be spending this day doing stuff far less noble and heroic (and notably less mobile, most likely), I offer a salute of thanks and respect. It’s good to be reminded that such greatness can exist within the pages of humanity.