I still remember reading a book in elementary school about the stories of several different Medal of Honor winners. While it is impossible to imagine compiling a book about MOH winners without including a chapter on Audie Murphy, his story was not the one that stayed with me all of these years.
Now that the MOH citations are available on-line, I spent a few minutes searching and found the story that I first read as a child. Hopefully after reading the citation, you will understand why the story of Billie Kanell was so unforgettable.
*KANELL, BILLIE G.
Rank and organization: Private, U.S. Army, Company I, 35th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Pyongyang, Korea, 7 September 1951. Entered service at: Poplar Bluff, Mo. Born: 26 June 1931, Poplar Bluff, Mo. G.O. No.: 57, 13 June 1952.
Citation: Pvt. Kanell, a member of Company I, distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and outstanding courage above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy. A numerically superior hostile force had launched a fanatical assault against friendly positions, supported by mortar and artillery fire, when Pvt. Kanell stood in his emplacement exposed to enemy observation and action and delivered accurate fire into the ranks of the assailants.
An enemy grenade was hurled into his emplacement and Pvt. Kanell threw himself upon the grenade, absorbing the blast with his body to protect 2 of his comrades from serious injury and possible death. A few seconds later another grenade was thrown into the emplacement and, although seriously wounded by the first missile, he summoned his waning strength to roll toward the second grenade and used his body as a shield to again protect his comrades.
He was mortally wounded as a result of his heroic actions. His indomitable courage, sustained fortitude against overwhelming odds, and gallant self-sacrifice reflect the highest credit upon himself, the infantry, and the U.S. Army.
The story of Pvt. Kanell is completely different than the one we looked at last year:
– At Omaha Beach, the men were part of the largest amphibious landing ever undertaken. At Pyongyang, Pvt Kanell was in a foxhole with two friends fighting for their lives.
– The men on Omaha Beach died heroically trying to carry out the plan that they had spent many months training for. Pvt Kanellâ€™s actions far exceeded any training he had ever received.
– The sacrifices made on D-Day have been recognized in many books, stories, and movies. Pvt Kanellâ€™s sacrifice may only be remembered by two friends and his family.
What does it mean to pay honor to the memories of the men and women that have died in service to their country?
Honoring our fallen heroes should be more than a mental image of markers at Arlington. It should be more than just watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It should be more than the sound of Taps played on a lone trumpet.
Those of us that have never been in combat will struggle to fully appreciate the courage and sacrifice of those that have. However, if we donâ€™t take the time to learn their stories, how can we ever claim to honor their memory?
There is nothing that I can say that adequately pays tribute to the sacrifices made on Omaha Beach or by Private Kanell. Recognizing the differences between the two situations in no way diminishes the enormous sacrifice made in either case. I believe that when we take the effort to learn and to remember the unique circumstances behind each story, we have at least begun to properly honor their memory.
As we pay tribute to Billie Kanell this Memorial Day, we would be remiss if we did not mention the unique company in which he stands. By one count, over 140 Medals of Honor have been awarded to men who dove on hand grenades to protect their fellow soldiersâ€¦their friends. Luckily for us, there are still men and women that willingly lay down their life for their friends and for us. Such selfless acts of sacrifice should never be forgotten.
Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down oneâ€™s life for his friends.