V-E Day 75: 10 Facts about the Medal of Honor and World War II in Europe

As the nation commemorates the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945, we too want to look back at those who earned our nation’s highest military decoration during the fighting in North Africa and Europe. With 472 Medals of Honor awarded to date, World War II is behind only the American Civil War in terms of the number of Medals of Honor awarded.

1. The vast majority of the Medals of Honor awarded in Europe and North Africa went to soldiers in the United States Army.

Of the 472 Medals of Honor awarded for World War II, 248 were awarded for valor in the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater. Of the 248, 221 were awarded to men from the Army, 25 to men from the Army Air Force, and 2 went to men serving in the Navy.

American troops getting ready to land in North Africa during Operation Torch.

2. The first Medals of Honor awarded went to men who fought French forces.

The first Medals of Honor awarded for heroism in World War II in the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater were given to Colonel Demas T. Craw, Major Pierpont M. Hamilton, and Colonel William H. Wilbur. During the allied invasion of Morocco, part of Operation Torch, the officers were in the force assigned to capture Port Lyautey (modern day Kenitra). They volunteered to accompany the leading wave of assault boats to the shore and pass through the enemy lines to locate the Vichy French commander. Though they were under a flag of truce, Craw was killed by French machinegun fire. Hamilton survived the brief fight and managed to complete their mission: delivering a letter to the local commander in the hopes of reducing hostility. As his part of Operation Torch, William H. Wilbur also received the Medal of Honor for his pivotal role capturing Casablanca; at one point he took command of a platoon of American tanks and personally led them in an attack.

Demas T. Craw
Pierpont M. HamiltonWilliam H. Wilbur

3. The 3rd Infantry Division earned more Medals of Honor than any other division in Europe.

40 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division, “The Rock of the Marne”, earned the Medal of Honor during World War II – more than any other division fighting in North Africa or Europe. This proud unit fought in Sicily, Italy, France, and Germany. One of the most famous soldiers from this division, and a Medal of Honor recipient, was then Second Lieutenant Audie Murphy.

Audie Murphy

Men of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division in Nuremberg, Germany, on April 20, 1945.

4. The regiment with the most Medals of Honor was comprised of Japanese-Americans.

In the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater, 21 Medals of Honor were earned by men from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most of any regiment in the theater. The regiment was a fighting unit composed almost entirely of second-generation American soldiers of Japanese ancestry, referred to as “Nisei.” The 442nd campaigned all over Europe and included amongst its Medal of Honor recipients U.S. Senators Spark Matsunaga and Daniel Inouye. “Go for Broke” was the motto of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The motto was derived from a gambler’s slang used in Hawaii to “go for broke,” which meant risking it all in one effort to win big.

 

Men from the 442nd heading int0 France during 1944.

5. The oldest servicemember to earn the Medal of Honor during the fighting in Europe was 57 years old.

Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., was born in September 1887 and was nearly 57 years old when he landed on Utah Beach during the Invasion of Normandy. He was among the highest-ranking officers to land on the beaches during the attack and Deputy Commander of the 4th Infantry Division. His father, President Theodore Roosevelt, also earned the Medal of Honor, making them one of only two father/son pairs to have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Tragically, instead, on July 12, 1944, Roosevelt Jr. died of a heart attack, a little more than one month after the U.S. landed in France.

Theodore Roosevelt Jr.

6. A Medal of Honor was awarded for the capture of a Nazi U-Boat that is now in Chicago.

On June 4, 1944, the U.S. Navy performed a feat that had not been accomplished in over a century: it captured an enemy vessel at sea during wartime. U.S. Navy Lt. Albert L. David led a boarding party that captured the German submarine U-505 150 miles off the coast of Rio De Oro in the Atlantic Ocean. Lt. David and his team saved the submarine from sinking and captured codebooks and other intelligence that was vital in the ongoing battle against the German navy in the Atlantic. The U-505 can still be visited today – at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois.

LEARN MORE: Capturing U-505

The capture of German Submarine U-505, June 4, 1944.

7. While there are many fighter aces who earned the Medal of Honor in the Pacific, there is only one who did so in Europe.

James Howard started his flying career as a carrier fighter pilot for the United States Navy before the war. He later became an ace while flying with the famous Flying Tigers in Burma and China. Only later did he join the U.S. Army Air Force as a P-51 pilot based out of Great Britain. On January 11, 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Howard, with no other friendly fighters around him, fought off a flight of 30 German fighters looking to attack a vulnerable U.S. bomber formation. Howard’s “One-Man Air Force” action became legendary and he was awarded the Medal of Honor on June 27, 1944. Why Howard is the only European ace to earn a Medal of Honor is an interesting question to ponder.

LTC Jim Howard in the cockpit of his P-51 Mustang. Howard was one of the rare aces that had both German and Japanese victory flags.

8. More Medals of Honor were awarded during the Battle of the Bulge than any other battle in Europe.

The Battle of the Bulge was the last major German offensive on the Western Front. From December 1944 to January 1945, more than 400,000 German troops attempted to split the Allied lines by attacking through the Ardennes Forest. Their goal was to encircle and destroy Allied armies. The battle was the bloodiest fought by the United States, causing nearly 90,000 casualties. 23 (see below for methodology) Medals of Honor were awarded for valor during this month-long battle. An admiring British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill stated, “This is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory.”

The 101st Airborne troops move out of Bastogne.

Other selected battles for which multiple Medals of Honor were awarded are below:

9. The last Medal of Honor action in Europe occurred just 15 days before Germany surrendered.

The last action for which a Medal of Honor was awarded in the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater of World War II was for Raymond L. Knight’s heroism on April 24, 1945. He engaged the Luftwaffe over the Po Valley in Italy. Knight was born in Houston, Texas. He was one of only two fighter pilots to earn the Medal of Honor in the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater.

Raymond L. Knight

A P-47 like the one Knight was flying during his Medal of Honor Action.

10. The most recent Medal of Honor awarded for action in World War II was given by President Donald Trump in 2018.

It was awarded to U.S. Army First Lieutenant Garlin Murl Conner and given to his widow. For three hours near Houssen, France, on January 24, 1945, Conner remained essentially in the open, directing artillery fire to break up a German counterattack. At one point, Conner directed artillery fire onto his own position. Incredibly, Garlin survived and passed away in 1998.

Garlin Murl Conner

President Trump presents the Medal of Honor posthumously to Conner’s widow.

NOTES

[1] There is some debate over the action for which the most Medals of Honor have been awarded. Our methodology includes the 22 men who fought on the ground during the Battle of the Bulge and also the member of the 8th Air Force who lost his life on a bombing run targeting German airfields in support of ground troops during the battle.