Above and Beyond
In the deadliest battles of war, American troops have rushed toward danger and risked their lives to fight for our country and protect their fellow service men and women. This week on March 25th we celebrate National Medal of Honor Day and the brave servicemembers who earned the United States military’s top honor. Medal of Honor recipients have served our country with dignity and valor, and a number of these heroes have called southern Missouri home.
Awarded by Congress and presented by the President of the United States, the Medal of Honor is the highest and most prestigious award in the U.S. military. Tens of millions of people have served our country in uniform, but only 3,522 people have earned the Medal of Honor. The recipients are hailed for their courageous actions and going beyond the call of duty. Many risked their lives to protect the country they loved, and some gave the “last full measure of devotion” and laid down their lives for our country.
One of these heroes was Private Billie Kanell from Poplar Bluff. He was 20 years old when he fought in the Korean War, and on September 7, 1951 his unit was attacked and outnumbered near Pyongyang. When a grenade was thrown in his direction, Private Kanell dove on the grenade to smother the blast with his body and protect his fellow soldiers. A few seconds later, another grenade landed in their location. Barely surviving the first blast, Private Kanell’s last act was throwing himself on the second grenade. He chose – twice – to give his life for our country.
Private Kanell saved at least two American lives that day. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to attend a ceremony honoring Private Kanell’s life and dedicate a portion of Highway PP as the “Private Billie G. Kanell Congressional Medal of Honor Memorial Highway,” so his selfless sacrifice will never be forgotten. Other heroes from southern Missouri have earned the Congressional Medal of Honor with their valor and brave actions to save American lives.
Darrell S. Cole was born in Park Hills and was originally assigned to play the bugle for the Marines. He was unhappy with his assignment as a field musician because he joined the Marines to fight, and he repeatedly requested to become a machine-gunner. Eventually he got his machine gun, and as a Sergeant he led the initial charge of Marines at the Battle of Iwo Jima. After his machine gun jammed, he took out multiple heavy Japanese gun stations armed with only his pistol and grenade. He successfully cleared the way for the Marines to advance, but was killed by a grenade when returning to his squad. His actions inspired the Marines that day and led to the capture of Iwo Jima. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and the Navy honored Sergeant Cole by naming a Destroyer after him. The USS Cole was damaged by a terrorist suicide bombing in Yemen in the lead-up to 9/11, but it still bears his name today.
Richard G. Wilson from Cape Girardeau, another Medal of Honor recipient, served as a combat medic in the Korean War. During a vicious ambush, he exposed himself to enemy fire to aid injured soldiers and evacuate the wounded. Once he was in a safe position, he heard that a soldier who they previously thought was dead was spotted moving and trying to crawl to safety. Private First Class Wilson rushed back into the danger, alone and unarmed, to try and save his life. Two days later he was found next to the man he was trying to save.
The freedoms we enjoy today were fought for by American servicemembers around the world. Many selflessly gave their lives to protect their fellow troops and the country they loved. As we celebrate National Medal of Honor Day this week, remember the Missourians who fought with courage and risked their lives to defend the United States of America.