Valor Friday

| September 11, 2020

Today’s article I’m calling “Heroism in Conscience.”

Conscientious objectors (COs) are those who find it morally reprehensible and against their conscience (usually for religious reasons) to take up arms against their fellow man. The Civil War was the first time conscription occurred in America, and those drafted claiming CO status paid a $300 fine to hire a surrogate.

In WWI, those COs were permitted to serve in non-combat roles. A couple thousand refused to serve in any capacity, and those men found themselves in military prison. When WWII again required mass conscription, COs could serve in non-combat roles or in the numerous New Deal civil works professions.

By the time of the Vietnam War, it became more common for people to claim CO status (to varying levels of success; see Cassius Clay circa 1967) in an effort to avoid the unpopular war. This led to the common, derogatory impression that COs are cowards, malingerers, and/or unpatriotic.

Despite this perception for the last 50 years, American war history from the 20th Century has numerous examples of men with deep religious convictions against war, but who love their country and serve with honor and dignity. Some of them have received our nation’s highest awards for combat bravery, without ever picking up a rifle.

Perhaps the most famous conscientious objector is Sergeant Alvin York. Known as the most decorated American soldier of World War I (though Eddie Rickenbacker claims the Medal of Honor and no less than seven Distinguished Service Crosses gets the top spot in my book) he was initially a CO. An Army draftee, York filed for CO status, but his request was denied. Sent to France as part of the American Expeditionary Force, he came to believe that God’s plan was for him to take up arms in defense of his nation.

Sgt York (c. 1919)

Take up arms he did. With the 82nd Division (All American) he was a corporal during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in October 1918. York was one of four NCOs and 13 privates sent to silence a German machine gun that was devastating the American line with accurate fire.

Getting behind enemy lines they captured a group of German soldiers in a command element. While contending with their prisoners, German machine gun fire raked the Doughboys. Six Americans were killed and three more wounded. York, the ranking man uninjured, took charge. York ordered his men to remain behind cover while he moved forward to the machine gun position alone.

Attacking the enemy machine gun position single handedly he directed accurate rifle fire into the enemy, dropping them one by one as they emptied their guns at the corporal. Six Germans sprang up and charged the apparently invincible warrior, bayonets fixed. York emptied his M1917 Enfield rifle and changed to his M1911 sidearm. He shot all six with the pistol.

The Germans ended up surrendering, all 132 of them, to Corporal York. Nearly a hundred years later, forensic archaeologists located the battlefield and discovered 46 rifle rounds and 23 .45ACP rounds from York’s sidearm right where he was said to have dispatched the six German bayonet charge.

WW1-era US Army MoH

York received the Medal of Honor from General of the Armies John Pershing himself. France gave him the Croix de Guerre, the Military Medal, and the Legion of Honor. Marshal Ferdinand Foch, when decorating York with the Croix de Guerre told him, “What you did was the greatest thing accomplished by any soldier of all the armies of Europe.”

Desmond Doss

Twenty-five years later, another conscientious objector would become the first true CO to receive a valor award. Desmond Doss was a devout Seventh Day Adventist. He wanted to serve as a combat medic and do his part, but refused to pick up a weapon. He worked in a shipyard and would have qualified for a deferment but chose to enlist in the Army to do his part in the Second World War.

With the 77th Infantry Division in the South Pacific, Doss would be decorated with the Bronze Star for valor for heroism in combat at Guam and received another for action in the Philippines. It was April into May 1945 at Okinawa that he would earn the Medal of Honor.

His unit climbed a 400ft cliff escarpment. Once atop it, they came under heavy Japanese artillery, machine gun, and small arms fire. It was a killing field of horrendous proportions. Seventy five men fell almost immediately. Doss refused to seek cover and moved from wounded man to wounded man under the heavy enemy barrage.

Through the next few days Doss would crawl through the battlefield, finding wounded men. He’d patch them up then carry or drag them back to the cliff edge. Here he’d load them in a sling and lower them down to the waiting help at the base of the 400ft ledge.

Doing this once or twice would be impressive. Corporal Desmond Doss did it 75 times! He crawled through an active battlefield and saved the lives of 75 men, bringing them to safety by carrying them to the cliff and lowering them the equivalent of a 40 story building!

Over the course of the next few weeks of the battle, as the American line moved slowly forward from that cliff, Doss time after time braved enemy fire to help his fellow soldiers. Ultimately, he was wounded four times during the battle.

Doss suffered serious wounds to his legs from a grenade on 21 May during one of his rescue attempts. Rather than call for help, he dressed his own wounds and waited five hours until stretcher bearers moved up to his position. As they were carrying him to the aid station they came under attack by an enemy tank.

Seeing a more seriously wounded man, Doss crawled off the stretcher and convinced the bearers to carry the other man first. While waiting for them to come back, Doss was hit in the arm by a sniper’s bullet, causing a compound fracture. Doss cooly used a rifle stock to splint his own arm and then crawled (with a useless arm and two grenade-wounded legs mind you) 300 yards over rough terrain to the aid station.

If ever a Medal of Honor seems like too little recognition, it’s for a man like Desmond Doss. He received the award from President Truman himself.

Despite the common belief of conscientious objectors being cowards coming largely from the Vietnam-era, there are more examples of supremely brave COs from that conflict.

Thomas Bennett

Thomas Bennett enlisted with CO status, and like Doss was trained as a combat medic. February 1969, Bennett was with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam. He’d only been in the country for little over a month when they started a series of difficult patrols on 9 February. He was recommended for the Silver Star for repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire that day, pulling five men to safety.

Two days later though, Bennett’s company was moving against a fortified enemy position. Coming under heavy fire, five men were immediately cut down. Treating one, he next set his sights to help a second. Ignoring warnings that the man, forward of the company’s line, would be impossible to reach safely, Corporal Bennett leapt up and ran into the heavy enemy fire. As he moved near the fallen man, the enemy fire found its mark and mortally wounded the selfless young man.

Bennett was only 21 when he received the Medal of Honor posthumously.

Joseph LaPointe

Joseph LaPointe Jr was 20 when he was drafted into the Army. Declaring himself a CO, he was trained like Bennett and Doss to be a medic. He was in Vietnam soon thereafter with the 101st Airborne Division.

On April 12th, 1969 Specialist Fourth Class LaPointe’s platoon was moving up a hill to set a night defensive position when a squad fell back due to heat casualties. As LaPointe was moving down to assist them the hill lit up with enemy artillery fire near where he’d just left the bulk of his platoon. Turning to move up the hill to tend to the wounded, LaPointe unhesitatingly ran uphill through exploding artillery rounds, never pausing to seek cover, until he’d rejoined the main body of his platoon.

Once there he went to work, aiding 17 injured men, several with severe injuries. He’s credited with surely saving the life of one man and likely saving the lives of several others.

He was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery under fire that day. He also received the Bronze Star Medal during these months, but I cannot find the citation to explain why.

On 2 June LaPointe’s patrol was advancing from their landing zone through a valley when they came under fire from a well entrenched enemy force. Two men fell as soon as fire opened up. Hearing a call for a medic, LaPointe ran forward into the heavy enemy fire. To reach the seriously wounded man, LaPointe had to crawl in direct view of one of the enemy bunkers.

Once he reached the wounded men, his platoon attempting to lay covering fire, LaPointe began to treat the more seriously wounded man’s injuries, shielding his patient with his body when enemy fire came upon them. LaPoint was hit with several rounds from a burst of enemy fire. Despite what had to be supremely painful wounds of his own, LaPointe refused to leave his injured comrade. Continuing to provide medical care to his patient he was again raked with enemy fire, knocking him down.

Specialist LaPointe, in extreme pain and mortally wounded, rose back up again. Obviously straining against his numerous injuries, LaPointe again used his own body to shield the other injured men until a grenade exploded right next to him and killed him and his two charges.

LaPointe’s gallantry and self-sacrifice in the face of the enemy and ignoring his own grievous injuries resulted in him being awarded the Medal of Honor. He was a month short of his 21st birthday and left behind a wife, Cindy, and son, Joseph LaPointe III. He never got to meet his son.

Jonathan Spicer

Conscientious objector bravery wasn’t limited to the Army. Jonathan Spicer was a Marine who claimed CO status but every time he brought it up through boot camp, the School of Infantry, his first unit, all the way to Vietnam, they kicked the can down the road and told him to take it up at his next stop. Well, he was now part of a front line USMC infantry division in Khe Sanh in the middle of a 75-day siege.

Assigned to supply with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, Private First Class Spicer again attempted to express his moral objection to taking up arms. A Marine rifleman in a combat theater refusing to pick up a rifle didn’t win him many friends.

Spicer sought out Protestant Navy Chaplain Ray Stubbe and convinced the preacher that he was for real. The chaplain arranged for Spicer to serve as a stretcher bearer with the Charlie Med unit, which was not lacking for patients in the battle that saw 6,000 Marines face off against 20-40,000 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars.

Though only 5’7” tall and 140 pounds in build, PFC Spicer impressed his medical co-workers with his courage and hard work. He told others of how he wanted to prove he wasn’t a coward after the treatment he received from the Marines of Bravo Company.

Spicer told an ambulance driver that he had no problem with dying, but he was not going to kill someone.

On the afternoon of 8 March, 1968, the NVA forces were attacking with everything they had. In the massive mortar, rocket, and artillery attack, casualties were mounting. Dustoff helicopter crews were coming in to evacuate the most critical. These helicopters were obvious targets for the enemy.

Spicer eagerly volunteered to carry wounded men out to the waiting helos. After loading his patients he remained behind, despite the danger to his own life, to help expedite the loading of additional casualties.

As they loaded their final patients, Spicer was the last to seek cover in a bunker at the end of the airfield. From there he saw a mortar explode next to a helicopter about to take off with a load of wounded.

Without hesitation, Spicer leapt from his bunker, ran into the open to assist those who couldn’t get to cover. As he moved, another mortar exploded mere feet away from him, as he used his body to shield a fellow Marine. The mortar’s blast sent shrapnel into his face, legs, and chest. He’d had his flak jacket unzipped and one of the pieces of shrapnel hit him critically in the heart.

Unable to walk, Spicer likely knew his fate was sealed. He warned off his comrades, not letting them leave their relative safety to come out to his aid. Spicer tried to crawl to a bunker, but succumbed to his wounds along the way.

Spicer was only 20 years old. The man thought a coward by some of his fellows when he arrived at Bravo Company solidly had that opinion changed. The man who refused to take up arms died saving his fellow Marines and earned the Navy Cross for his bravery that day.

Finally, I have one more Army story of bravery that’s really hard to fathom. I can’t find much on the man aside from his award, but the citation alone paints a picture of a conscientious objector of intense valor.

Wendell Meade was a private first class with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division on 12 March, 1967 as his platoon was in Vietnam. They were headed to relieve a unit embattled by a numerically superior enemy force near the Cambodian border.

Going into battle without a weapon due to religious beliefs, he braved withering enemy fire to come to the aid of his platoon leader when that man was taken down.

During the battle he braved heavy enemy fire over and over again to come to the aid of wounded comrades. When half the platoon fell back to regroup, Meade remained behind with the wounded to supervise evacuation. At his new position he braved enemy mortar and automatic weapons fire to construct a shelter for the injured.

On one of his forays into enemy fire he was seriously wounded while getting to a fellow soldier. Ignoring his own wounds, he dressed the injured soldier before attending to his own.

Throughout the night, into the morning of the 13th he moved from position to position among the men of his platoon, treating injuries. He refused evacuation in the morning until all other wounded had been evacuated first.

Meade received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that day. By the time of his award he’d been promoted to Specialist Fourth Class. He died in 2005 at age 64. His gravestone lists his highest rank with the Army as Specialist Fifth Class. He was survived by his wife, who died this year on the 6th of August at the age of 83.

Category: Army, Historical, Marines, Medal of Honor, Valor, War Stories, We Remember

Comments (7)

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  1. USAFRetired says:

    “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.”

    Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends

  2. 5th/77th FA says:

    Wow! Great mix Mason. Some of these stories we knew about, Sgt York, Captain Rickenbacker, and Corp Doss, but some of the others we’re not as familiar with. Proof that you can be a Warrior without agreeing with the war. And that you can serve your fellow Warriors and not pull a trigger. Don’t think I could do that. I’d be trying to kill the ones that were trying to kill me.

    Gun Salute…PREPARE!!!!!….FIRE!!!!! Secure the piece!

    Thanks Mason.

  3. Anonymous says:

    And, on this day, let’s not forget 9/11:

    • David says:

      Not one mention on the news… guess “some people” eventually succeeded.

      Kinda miss Jonn’s usual article on Ric Rescoria.

      • Anonymous says:

        And Democrats, including the media, will lick their boots.

      • USMC Steve says:

        Fox News was playing parts of their original coverage to remind those who might have forgotten.

        For the propaganda media, it isn’t important or helpful to their goals.

      • Mason says:

        Rescorla was a heck of a guy. A Brit who served in their Army, then the Rhodesian police, then moved here, joined our Army, got commissioned, fought in Vietnam at la Drang under Colonel Moore, and then saved countless lives on 9/11, dying in the process.