UW News

November 5, 2009

Honoring the men behind the Medals of Honor with ceremony, exhibit

UW News

Maybe Harry S. Truman said it best, as he so often did in his no-nonsense way.

A former World War I artilleryman and by then also former president, Truman wrote a letter in 1955 to Capt. Archie Van Winkle of the United States Marines — one of the eight Congressional Medal of Honor recipients and UW alumni to be honored here on Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11.

Truman had personally bestowed the medal on Van Winkle, who later mailed a photo of the moment for the president to sign. Happy to oblige, Truman wrote, “That Congressional Medal of Honor is the greatest honor that can come to a man, and I think I told you that I would rather have it than be President of the United States. I still feel that way.”

A similar spirit will be in the air on Wednesday, when these eight soldiers and UW alumni who risked their lives for others in four foreign wars — World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War — are honored with a new, prominent campus memorial.

As the UW’s own president, Mark Emmert, said of the new campus site, “The memorial will be a permanent, powerful reminder of the extraordinary things that can happen when ordinary people take action.”

Festivities will start at 10 a.m. with a parade down Memorial Way to feature veterans groups, bands and a military color guard. Gen. Peter V. Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff and a graduate of the UW Evans School of Public Affairs, will deliver the main address at 10:30 a.m.

The Medal of Honor recipients are:

  • Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, major, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve,
  • Deming Bronson, first lieutenant, U.S. Army
  • Bruce Crandall, lieutenant colonel (ret.), U.S. Army
  • Robert E. Galer, brigadier general (ret.), U.S. Marine Corps.
  • John D. “Bud” Hawk, sergeant, U.S. Army
  • Robert Leisy, second lieutenant, U.S. Army
  • William Kenzo Nakamura, private first class, U.S. Army
  • Archie Van Winkle, colonel (ret.), U.S. Marine Corps

But the new memorial won’t be the only way to remember these brave men on campus.

Truman’s letter to Van Winkle — and much more — will be displayed in a new exhibit at the Odegaard Undergraduate Library complementing the memorial. The display, to be up through Dec. 18, is titled Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Courage.

The exhibit is largely the work of Catherine O’Donnell, a writer with the UW News & Information Office, and Marta Beyer, a second-year graduate student in the UW Museology Graduate Program.

O’Donnell researched personal letters and biographical material for the exhibit — which has a special shelf for each of the eight award recipients — and Beyer acted as exhibit designer, deciding which elements to include and how to display them to greatest advantage.

“I was called on board to select what would be the most appropriate material and organize it, and develop a design for the show,” Beyer said. She said the display provides a personal introduction to each of the medal recipients, specifically focusing on their war experiences. “It puts a human face on these men to give you a little bit more information when you see the memorial.”

The two had only a few weeks to organize the exhibit — practically light speed in the deliberative world of museum work. Time constraints were among their biggest challenges, they said, but they’re proud of the result.

Beyer said, “All the families contributed information, and several contributed artifacts, photos and medals — we’ve been really lucky that they were so generous.”

The exhibit also includes personal correspondence from medal recipients Deming Bronson and Robert Leisy (pronounced Lacey). Leisy was perhaps like many soldiers in wartime, writing cheery letters to family urging them not to worry while revealing more realistic details to friends.

In October of 1969 he wrote his parents, “The Club here has run out of beer. Cold sodas are available, but not beer,” as if that were the worst of his concerns. To a friend, however, he confessed in a Dec. 1 letter, “My nerves are calming down now. We had some rather nasty contact and some rather hairy experiences on our last mission. I thought I’d bought the farm for sure.”

Leisy was killed in action the next day, as he protected others from an incoming grenade.

His Medal of Honor citation reads as follows: On Dec. 2, 1969, North Vietnamese soldiers attacked Leisy’s unit, outnumbering them 10 to 1. Leisy used his own body to shield his fellow soldiers from a rocket-propelled grenade. Then, while mortally wounded, he continued to direct his men, refusing medical treatment until others were cared for. Leisy was 24 at the time of his death. He had been in Vietnam less than three months.

O’Donnell, who had the initial idea for the library exhibit, read through all the letters available from these war heroes — an emotional job in itself.

“One of the things I’ve noticed is that these were self-effacing men,” she said. “They were not show-offs, not trying to win a medal.”

And indeed, she added, “You don’t win a Medal of Honor. You receive it.”

Both Wednesday’s events and the library exhibit are open to the public. Learn more about the memorial and read the Medal of Honor citations for all eight men online here. For more information about the Medal of Honor, visit online here.