William McGurn: Harvard's Medals of Honor

Roundup: Talking About History

[William McGurn is a Vice President at News Corporation who writes speeches for CEO Rupert Murdoch. Previously he served as Chief Speechwriter for President George W. Bush.]

Most Americans would not be surprised to learn that Harvard is our nation's oldest institution of higher learning, that it boasts the largest endowment, and that it has produced more U.S. presidents than any other university.

Most Americans, however, might be hard-pressed to guess another Harvard distinction: the highest number of Medal of Honor recipients outside the service academies.

The bar for our highest military award is high: a recipient must distinguish himself by "gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty." Since the medal's establishment during the Civil War, 10 Harvard men have received it. And next Wednesday at 11 a.m., these 10 will be honored with a plaque to be placed in the sanctuary of the university's Memorial Church.

"Even those of us who have served were surprised to find so many Medal of Honor recipients," says Thomas Reardon '68, who heads the Harvard Veterans Alumni Organization that is raising the money to pay for the plaque. "Many more would be surprised to know that today there are about 150 military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan now studying on the Harvard campus. With this Veteran's Day ceremony, we honor their service as well."

The ceremony comes at a timely moment. Over the past eight years of war, six Americans have been awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery they have shown in battle in Afghanistan or Iraq. All six died in the actions that earned them this award. Yet notwithstanding the prominence and rarity of the honor, we live in an age when few of our leading papers—I am happy to report The Wall Street Journal an exception—ever deem these medals worthy of front-page attention.

Harvard's prominence among Medal of Honor recipients is a recent discovery. It grew out of a reference by a speaker during a 2005 commissioning ceremony. The reference intrigued Paul Mawn '63, a retired Navy captain. With a little research, he unearthed the names of all 10—the most of any university outside the United States Military Academy at West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.

Altogether the Harvard list shows eight Army soldiers and two Marines. It includes the father-and-son recipients Teddy Roosevelt (for San Juan Hill) and Teddy Roosevelt II (for D-Day). Others range from the Army's Leonard Wood, who was awarded the medal for carrying dispatches through Apache territory in the 1880s, to Marine Sherrod Skinner, who threw himself on a grenade in October 1952 during the Korean War, saving the lives of two comrades...

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