Despite backing from congressmen, senators, military veterans and historians, he never received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military distinction, awarded for life-risking acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.
A federal judge in Kentucky would end his widow’s 22-year quest to see that her husband received the medal.
U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell, in an 11-page opinion issued March 12, 2014, had said a technicality prevented Pauline Conner of Albany, KY from continuing her campaign on behalf of her husband, who died in 1998. Russell concluded that Pauline Conner waited too long to present new evidence to the U.S. Army Board of Correction of Military Records, which rejected her bid to alter her husband’s service record.
Russell praised Conner’s “extraordinary courage and patriotic service,” but said there was nothing he could do for the family.
“Dismissing this claim as required by technical limitations in no way diminishes Lt. Conner’s exemplary service and sacrifice,” Russell wrote.
Richard Chilton, a former Green Beret and amateur military historian who had researched Conner’s service, said Conner deserved the Medal of Honor. Chilton pledged to get resolutions from lawmakers and veterans’ groups in all 50 states in an attempt to get Congress to act on Conner’s behalf.
“I want to make sure they can’t walk away from this,” Chilton told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “He’s a man worthy of this.”
Roughly 3,400 people have received the Medal of Honor since its creation in 1861, including actor Audie Murphy, the most decorated U.S. soldier in World War II.
Conner served with the 3rd Infantry Division, which fought in France and Europe in 1945. His citation for the Distinguished Service Cross states that on Jan. 24, 1945, near Houssen, France, he slipped away from a military hospital with a hip wound to rejoin his unit rather than return home to Kentucky. He would unreel a telephone wire and plunged into a shallow ditch in front of the battle line to direct multiple rounds of fire for three hours, as German troops continued their offensive with sometimes getting within five yards of Conner’s position.
The board had first rejected Conner’s application in 1997 on its merits and turned away an appeal in June 2000, saying at the time no new evidence warranted a hearing or a new decoration despite more than a dozen letters of support for Conner.
In the years that followed, lawmakers in Kentucky, Tennessee and three other states passed resolutions backing the effort to see Conner receive the Medal of Honor. After Chilton found three eyewitness accounts to Conner’s deeds in 2006, Pauline Conner resubmitted the case to the board in 2008 – two years after the statute of limitations expired.
A bipartisan group of current and former members of Congress backed Conner’s application in the past, including retired Sen. Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican and World War II veteran; retired Sen. Wendell Ford, a Democrat from Kentucky; current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; and Whitfield, who represents Conner’s home town near the Tennessee line. Noted World War II historian Steven Ambrose, who died in 2002, wrote in November 2000 to support Conner’s application, saying his actions were “far above the call of duty.”
The review board remained unmoved by Conner’s submission.
“The most recent information received 22 December 2008 is not new evidence and does not warrant granting an exception to the above cited regulation and a formal hearing,” wrote Conrad V. Meyer, the director of the Army Board for Correction of Military Records on Feb. 9, 2009.
While the military board has upgraded other recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross to a Medal of Honor, the action is rare. As of 2012, the last year available, 178 Distinguished Service Crosses had been elevated to Medal of Honor status out of 13,000 issued since 1917. Military policy dictates that the first decoration must be re-examined, re-justified and then re-evaluated with new evidence before any action can be taken.
The military can also conduct a review at the behest of Congress.
Conner’s commander in World War II, retired Maj. Gen. Lloyd B. Ramsey of Salem, Va., filed an affidavit saying Conner’s work, while injured, provided valuable intelligence.
“There is no doubt that Lt. Conner should have been awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions,” Ramsey wrote. “One of the most disappointing regrets of my career is not having the Medal of Honor awarded to the most outstanding soldier I’ve ever had the privilege of commanding.”
Conner’s fellow soldiers also filed affidavits crediting Conner with helping not only save the lives of fellow soldiers but being key to defeating the Germans in the battle.
Retired Lt. Harold Wigetman, a member of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry, said that between the artillery strikes Conner called in and spray from his own machine gun, he killed at least 50 German soldiers and wounded twice as many.
“His heroic and entirely voluntary act saved our battalion,” Wigetman wrote. “If he hadn’t done what he did, we would have had to fight for our lives.”
First published March 12, 2014 / AP
WASHINGTON — Garlin “Murl” Conner never wavered under fire during his 28 consecutive months of combat in North Africa and Europe. In the two decades since Conner’s death, his family never wavered in their quest for the recognition that they knew he deserved – the Medal of Honor.
On June 26, 2018, President Donald Trump posthumously awarded the nation’s highest military honor to Conner, explaining how he might not have been an imposing figure by stature but his bravery on battlefields during World War II made him larger than life.
“Today, we pay tribute to this Kentucky farm boy who stared down evil with the strength of a warrior and the heart of a true hero,” the president said before presenting the Medal of Honor to Conner’s widow, Pauline. “Murl was indeed a giant in his daring, in his devotion and in his duty.”
Conner stood five feet, six inches tall and weighed about 120 pounds, but soldiers who served with the first lieutenant described him as fearless.
Conner had already received three of his four Silver Stars for risking his life to save the men with whom he served when his unit – 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment – found itself facing down some 600 German infantrymen and six Panzer Mark VI Tiger tanks near the town of Houssen, France.
It was the morning of Jan. 24, 1945 and the German army was launching desperate attacks on American formations in the wake of its defeat in the Battle of Bulge.
Conner, his battalion’s intelligence officer, could see his unit was in danger of being overrun and took it upon himself to ensure U.S. artillery was hitting the German positions not entirely visible from behind the front lines.
The soldier – already wounded in his hip from sniper fire in an earlier fight – grabbed a telephone, unspooling the wire that connected it to his commander’s telephone, and dashed 400 yards forward, passing his battalion’s defensive position. Ignoring warnings from soldiers around him, Conner continued another 30 yards past the line, maneuvering through a field of artillery fire before diving into a snowy, shallow ditch from where he could observe the enemy formation, according to recounts of the battle.
With only the telephone and his submachine gun, Conner spent the next three hours laying in that ditch, directing American artillery fire as swarms of German soldiers moved toward his battalion, according to his Medal of Honor citation. When his position was eventually spotted by the German soldiers closing within some 10 yards of him, Conner remained calm. He called in fire on his own position, “having resolved to die to stall the enemy advance,” fearing if the Germans near him moved forward they would decimate the U.S. soldiers behind him, according to the citation.
“By his incredible heroism and disregard for his own life, Conner stopped the enemy advance,” the citation reads. “The artillery he expertly directed under constant enemy fire killed approximately 50 German soldiers and wounded at least 100 more, thus preventing heavy casualties in his battalion.”
“Those people who were with him, many of them say it was the single bravest act they’d ever seen,” Trump said of Conner’s actions that day for which he was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. “Somehow Lt. Conner survived the attack.”
Pauline Conner, 89, beamed Tuesday as Trump upgraded the award. She was helped onto the stage at the front of the White House’s East Room to receive the honor that she had fought to attain for her husband for 22 years. In attendance was a crowd of U.S. officials, friends and family members including her son Paul, her five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
It was a moment Pauline Conner never thought would come.
“After all these years it really is and truly is an honor,” Conner said Monday at the Pentagon. “I had really and truly given up on it. I just didn’t think it would ever happen. But he has a [combat] record that speaks for itself. I don’t have to tell it.”
Conner’s Army record earned him decorations in savage battles between October 1942 and March 1945 as his 3rd Infantry Division unit pushed from Morocco, across Tunisia into Italy, across France and into Germany.
The Medal of Honor raises Conner into the ranks of the highest-decorated soldiers in the Army’s history, according to Erik Villard, a historian with the Army’s Center for Military History.
His actions earned him the respect of his fellow soldiers and of his commanders, who in 1944 granted him a battlefield commission from technical sergeant to second lieutenant.
Lloyd Ramsey, Conner’s battalion commander who would rise to major general, wrote Conner was the best combat soldier he had ever observed in action.
“No words can express the outstanding leadership qualities that Lt. Conner had,” the late Ramsey wrote after the war. Conner was “always willing to do more than his part.”
But people who knew Conner after he left the Army knew little of the small-town Kentucky farmer’s battlefield exploits. He rarely, if ever, spoke of his service because he was concerned it could come across as bragging, said Pauline Conner. He instead chose to tell people who inquired about his time in combat that he’d left those memories across the Atlantic Ocean, she said.
The Conner family’s quest to see Murl Conner’s Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for combat valor, upgraded to the Medal of Honor, launched a struggle that would last the next 22 years through battles with the Army’s awards branch and eventually in courtrooms. Luther Conner said the family had finally found some closure with Trump’s upgrade of Murl Conner’s award, 20 years after his death at the age of 79.
“We were quite sure from the outset,” Luther said about his cousin’s deserving a Medal of Honor. “You could read the account. There was just no doubt he was deserving of it. That’s separating any emotion or family interest.”
Trump agreed, saying his decision to approve the upgrade was easy.
“He couldn’t stop [fighting] because he loved our country and he fought with everything he had to stop the Nazi menace,” the president said. “ We will always be grateful to God for giving us heroes like Murl.”
Pauline Conner said her only wish was that her late husband had lived long enough to receive his Medal of Honor himself. “He would feel highly honored,” she said.
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