By Bill Robinson
RICHMOND — Six recipients of the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military award for gallantry in combat, will attend the Kentucky Veterans Welcome Home Celebration this weekend at Battlefield Park.
Three of the Medal of Honor recipients, along with Tuskegee Airman Frank D. Walker of Richmond, will be recognized by Gov. Ernie Fletcher at a Thursday ceremony beginning at 5 p.m.
The three other Medal of Honor recipients will be honored on Friday evening.
“Having six medal recipients together at one time is unusual,” said Chuck Sawyers, who is coordinating the celebration’s Medal of Honor ceremony. “Many Medals of Honor are awarded posthumously. The courageous actions of the recipients cost them their lives.”
The ranks of the Tuskegee Airmen also are thinning. Only about 1,000 black pilots, the first in the U.S. military, were trained at Tuskegee University in Alabama. They were assigned to four escort fighter squadrons in World War II. None of the bombers they escorted were lost to enemy fighters.
Three of the Medal of Honor recipients are combat veterans of the Korean War, including Ernest E. “Ernie” West of Wurtland. The other two are Ronald E. Rosser of Crooksville, Ohio, and Rodolfo P. Hernandez of Colton, Calif.
The Vietnam War recipients are James E. Livingston of McRae, Ga., Donald E. Ballard of Kansas City, Mo., and John F. Baker Jr. of Moline, Ill.
On Oct. 12, 1952, West volunteered to accompanied a patrol assigned to location an destroy an enemy outpost. Before reaching its objective, the patrol was ambushed and suffered numerous casualties. West ordered the other troops to retreat while he attempted to rescue the unit’s wounded leader.
According to his citation, West survived intense enemy fire to reach the wounded man. As he attempted to evacuate him, West was attacked by three enemy soldiers employing grenades and small arms fire.
Shielding the wounded man with his body, West killed the three assailants with his rifle and then pulled the wounded man to safety. West was wounded and lost an eye in this action, but he continued brave withering fire and bursting shells to assist two other wounded men and bring them to safety. West killed three more of the enemy as accomplished the these rescues.
The citations of the other five recipients contain stories of similar heroism.
Rosser charged a fortified hilltop in Korea on Jan. 12, 1952, and with his rifle and hand grenades killed seven gunners that had pinned down his unit. Then followed by others who were inspired by his courage, he assaulted two more enemy positions. Both Rosser and two comrades were wounded. He and his men did not retreat they were until out of ammunition.
Facing an enemy infantry assault supported by artillery and machine-gun fire in Korea on May 31, 1951, Hernandez was wounded in an exchange of grenades. He held his position and continued firing his weapon until it jammed. He then rushed the enemy with his bayonet, killing six, until falling unconscious from grenade, bayonet and bullet wounds. His actions halted the enemy advance long enough for the Americans to launch a counterattack.
On Nov. 5, 1966, Baker was part of a column sent to support another engaged in an intense fight in Vietnam. When the lead man was killed, Baker moved to the point and with another soldier knocked out an enemy bunker. When his comrade was mortally wounded, Baker located and killed four enemy snipers. He then evacuated the fallen soldier and returned to lead several more assaults. He single-handedly took out on bunker and then grabbed a wounded comrade’s machine gun and charged through enemy fire to take out another.
After evacuating his wounded comrade, Baker returned to the forefront. Ordered to withdraw, he carried another man to the rear. As he tried to take yet another wounded soldier from the fight, Baker again came under sniper fire. Again he charged the snipers’ positions and killed them. With is ammunition exhausted, he carried two more wounded to safety.
Two of the Vietnam era recipients were both cited for actions in May of 1968.
On May 2, 1968, Livingston, then a Marine captain, led his men across 500 meters of open rice paddy to assault an entrenched enemy position that had isolated a Marine company from the rest of its battalion. Despite being twice wounded, Livingston refused medical treatment and continued to lead the assault. He and his men destroyed more than 100 enemy bunkers, freeing the trapped unit. Even after receiving a third wound, Livingston refused evacuation until he had directed his men in fighting off an enemy counterattack.
On May 16, 1968, Ballard, was a Navy hospital corpsman assigned to a Marine infantry unit. Ballard treated a wounded Marine and directed four others to evacuate the wounded man. At that moment, an enemy soldier emerged from a concealed position and hurled a grenade at the six Americans. After shouting a warning to the other, Ballard through himself on the explosive device to absorb its blast.
When the grenade failed to detonate, Ballard remained in the same dangerous spot and continued to treat the wounded.
In addition to his recognition from the governor, Ballard will get some other special treatment at the celebration. Because his plane will be arriving so late at Bluegrass Airport in Lexington, he will be ferried to Battlefield Park in a Black Hawk helicopter.
Referring to Medal of Honor recipients as winners is incorrect, said Sawyers, a former Marine staff sergeant who served in Vietnam. “The Medal of Honor is not something that military people compete for or go into action seeking to ‘win.’ Recipients are usually ordinary people put into extraordinary circumstances who respond with extraordinary courage.”
The Medal of Honor recipients will be available during the celebration to autograph copies of the book “Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty.” Ballard and author Charles Wright will be autographing copies of “Doc: Heroic Stories of Medics, Corpsmen and Surgeons in Combat.”
Bill Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 623-1669, Ext. 267.