Men of Valor
Military awards and medals have been given to soldiers for acts of courage since ancient times. In America, General George Washington created a simple purple cloth heart to recognize “any singularly meritorious action” which was known as the Badge of Military Merit (the forerunner of the Purple Heart). Only three soldiers in the Continental Army received this award. By the time of the Mexican War (1846-1848) a certificate of merit was established for any soldier who distinguished himself in action. However, no medal went with this honor. In 1863, Congress created the Medal of Honor a permanent decoration for “gallantry and intrepity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” One thousand-five hundred and twenty-two Union soldiers and sailors received this award during the Civil War (over 1,900 have received the Medal of Honor since that time, including nine men from Jefferson County, Alabama).
A second and third level of commendation for heroism was created during World War I. For “extraordinary heroism,” the Distinguished Service Cross (Army) and the Navy Cross were awarded (the Air Force Cross was added in 1947). For ‘gallantry in action,” the Siver Star award was created at the same time.
The History Center has identfied ninety-six men from Jefferson County who have been awarded either the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross or Silver Star for valor in foreign wars and have a copy of their citation. They are listed below. Unfortunately, neither the Army, Navy or Air Force keep complete records of award winners, so this list may be incomplete. Please contact the History Center if you know any of these men or others in the county who have earned these awards, we are especially interested in obtaining photographs and service records for these men with the hope of creating an exhibit in the Center’s museum.
As an example: Gordon Johnston was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1874 but moved to Birmingham before enlisting in the Army. He served as a Second Lieutenant in the 43rd Volunteer Infantry during the Philippine Insurrection following the Spanish-American War in 1898. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1924 (after the award had been created by Congress in 1918) for gallantry during an action in 1900. His citation reads:
“The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Second Lieutenant (Infantry) Gordon Johnston, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism while serving with 43d Infantry, U.S. Volunteers, in action at Palo, Leyte, Philippine Islands, 1 February 1900. While in command of a small detachment of scouts Lieutenant Johnston displayed remarkable gallantry and leadership in charging a greatly superior force of entrenched insurgents in the face of cannon and rifle fire, driving the enemy from their position and capturing the town of Palo.” Johnston was also awarded the Medal of Honor in 1910 for another action which took place in the Philippines in 1906. He died in 1934 and is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.