When Harry S. Truman, a field artillery captain during World War I, presented the Medal of Honor for extraordinary bravery in World War II or the Korean War, he usually told recipients, “I’d rather have this medal than be President .”
More than 3,500 men and one woman, Mary Walker, a Civil War Department surgeon during the Civil War, have received the medal, the nation’s highest award for bravery, since its adoption in 1861.
World War II recipients include General Douglas MacArthur and General Jonathan Wainwright, cited for leading troops in the ultimately doomed defense of the Philippines early in the war, and General James Doolittle, who led the Doolittle Raiders bombing of Tokyo in 1942, revenge after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The men who received the medal for bravery on the European front include Cpl. Charles Kelly of Pittsburgh, who was considered a kind of one-man army for saving many of his fellow GIs by repelling German attackers during a battle in Italy in 1943.
In the Pacific, Pfc. Desmond Doss, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church who saved dozens of fellow soldiers in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa while an unarmed medic, became the first conscientious objector to receive the medal.
But most of the surviving World II recipients of the medal remained little known until their final years or their deaths. Such was the case with Hershel Williams of the Marine Corps, the last remaining Medal of Honor recipient of the war and the oldest of all living holders of the medal, who died Wednesday at age 98.
Only one president has received the medal that Truman honored. Theodore Roosevelt, who assumed the presidency in September 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley, was awarded it in January 2001 for training his Rough Riders in 1898 San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War while serving as a lieutenant colonel.
His son Brig. Gene. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. received the medal for collecting soldiers of the Fourth Infantry Division under fire on Utah Beach during the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944.
General Roosevelt died of a heart attack in Normandy on July 12, 1944, more than a month after the D-Day invasion there. Like his father, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor; he received it in September 1944. He would join the more than 400 servicemen of all branches of the armed forces of the Second World War awarded for gallantry “above and beyond the call of duty”.