10 Mormons among Medal of Honor recipients

Published: Thursday, May 24 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Related story: All could learn something from ancestors

The seed for Sherman Fleek’s book, “Saints of Valor: Mormon Medal of Honor Recipients,” was planted on a lazy summer morning in 1967 when he was kid.

His father promised to take him out for breakfast, but first, they had one stop to make. They drove to South Clearfield Elementary School for a special ceremony honoring Maj. Bernard Fisher of the U.S. Air Force.

“Why was the main guy — the guy they talked so much about — why was he wearing a medal around his neck?” Sherman asked his father. “What was that thing?"

“Sherman, that is the Medal of Honor,” his father replied.

About 45 years later, Sherman Fleek is a retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. who serves as the Command Historian at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Fleek is also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who has authored several books and articles related to military history. He wrote “Saints of Valor” in order to highlight the lives of nine Latter-day Saints who received the highest decoration the United States can bestow on a person.

“The compelling stories of these LDS Medal of Honor awardees need to be told to secure their memory and their sacrifices for the future,” Fleek wrote in the introduction. “Hopefully, generations will come to know and appreciate these brave warriors, imperfect as they may be, and will continue to inspire others as they inspire us today.”

Here is a brief glimpse into the nine men and their stories, plus one extra LDS Medal of Honor recipient Fleek discovered after his book was published. You can find “Saints of Valor” (Greg Kofford Books, $29.95) wherever LDS books are sold.

Pvt. Thomas C. Neibaur

Neibaur, of Sugar City, Idaho, was the first Mormon to receive the Medal of Honor. He enlisted in the Idaho National Guard a week before the U.S. declared war against Germany in 1917. He became an automatic rifleman and was deployed to France in World War I, where he was assigned to the 167th Infantry Regiment.

On Oct. 16, 1918, Neibaur volunteered with a patrol to take out a German machine gun nest at the top of a hill. While crawling up the hill, enemy fire killed his two companions and left Niebaur with three wounds in his right thigh. The Germans saw him and approximately 45 men charged. Neibaur opened fire with his automatic rifle, killing and wounding many. Then his gun jammed. He tossed it aside and retreated back down the hill. He was wounded a fourth time in the hip and fell unconscious.

When he awoke, he found himself surrounded by 15 Germans. Supporting fire from his fellow troops scattered the Germans and allowed Neibaur to pick up a pistol. The Germans charged him with bayonets and he killed four of them. He captured the remaining 11 and led them to American lines below.

Neibaur’s story has a sad ending. In 1939, discouraged by misfortune and unable to feed his family, Neibaur mailed his Medal of Honor and other decorations back to Congress, stating, “I cannot eat them.” Within three years, both he and his wife died and their four sons were sent to an orphanage in Michigan. His awards and decorations were eventually donated to the Idaho State Historical Society.

Fleek wrote a book about Neibaur in 2008 titled “Place the Headstones Where They Belong: Thomas Neibaur, WWI Soldier.”

Capt. Mervyn S. Bennion

Of Fleek’s nine, Bennion was perhaps the most professionally trained and best-prepared for action. A U.S. Naval Academy graduate and an officer on four vessels, the Mormon from Vernon, Tooele County, was captain of the USS West Virginia on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. Bennion was hit by shrapnel from a Japanese bomb that blew up part of his command deck. Several sailors attempted to move him to a first-aid station, but he refused to leave his post. He used one of his arms to hold his wounds closed but bled to death while commanding his crew.

He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and is buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. Capt. Bennion was portrayed by actor Peter Firth in the 2001 film, “Pearl Harbor.”

Pvt. Nathan “Junior” Van Noy

Van Noy, of Preson, Idaho, joined the Army in Feb. 1943. About eight months later on Oct. 17 near Finschafen, New Guinea, the 19 year old was manning a machine gun during an amphibious enemy attack in the early morning darkness. Despite being seriously wounded, Van Noy refused to leave his post and killed at least half of the 40 Japanese soldiers before he finally died. He was the only fatality. For his actions during the battle, which saved many lives, he was posthumously issued the Medal of Honor on Feb. 26, 1944.

He was buried in the cemetery at Grace, Idaho.

Lt. Col. Edward S. Michael

Michael, a Chicago native, was the pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress with the 364th Bomb Squadron in April 1944. On April 11, he was flying a mission over Germany and his aircraft was severely damaged by cannon fire. As flames burned in the plane’s bomb bay, Michael, who had been seriously wounded, ordered his crew to bail out. Upon finding one crewman’s parachute was unusable, he returned to the controls, managed to evade the enemy and made a successful crash landing on Allied soil.

He received the Medal of Honor on Jan. 15, 1945. Michael joined the LDS Church in 1976 and two years later was sealed to his wife, Louise, in the Salt Lake Temple.

Pvt. 1st Class Leonard C. Brostrom

Of the nine, Brostrom was the only one to serve a full-time mission. Born in Preston, Idaho, he served for three years in California and Nevada.

After returning home, he joined the U.S. Army in March 1942. He was assigned to Company F, 2nd battalion in the 17th Infantry Regiment in the Philippine Islands. On Oct. 28, 1944, Brostrom’s platoon encountered enemy fire. He was hit three times as the fought his way through a bamboo thicket. As he threw several grenades into an enemy bunker, six Japanese soldiers charged with bayonets. Brostrom killed one and wounded others, causing a retreat. Brostrom was hit a fourth time and fell, but rose again and continued to fire and throw grenades until the Japanese fled the bunker. Brostrom later succumbed to his wounds.

Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class George E. Wahlen

Wahlen, who grew up in Ogden, Utah, served in the Army and Navy. He also volunteered for combat duty with the Marines and participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. Over 12 days of battle, Wahlen was wounded several times and refused personal care while attending to other fallen soldiers.

He received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman on Oct. 5, 1945. He died in 2009. Wahlen is the subject of a the book, “The Quiet Hero: The Untold Medal of Honor Story by George E. Wahlen at the Battle of Iwo Jima,” by Gary Toyn.

Sgt. David B. Bleak

Born in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Bleak dropped out of school to become an Army combat medic and was deployed to serve in the Korean War. During a mission in Chinese territory, Bleak’s patrol came under heavy fire. Despite being wounded himself, Bleak rushed the enemy multiple times and killed five Chinese soldiers, four with his hands, in order to assist wounded comrades and shield another from a grenade blast. He was credited for saving many lives. He died in 2006.

Maj. Bernard F. Fisher

Fisher grew up in Clearfield, Utah. He was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force when the Korean War started and more pilots were needed. During the Vietnam War in 1966, Fisher was sent to the A Shau Valley to defend troops living at a Special Forces camp that had come under attack by a large force of the North Vietnamese Army. When another pilot, Maj. D.W. Myers, was shot down, Fisher risked his life to land his aircraft and rescue his friend. Despite enemy fire, they escaped. The A-1 Skyraider he flew that day was saved and restored. It’s on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Jerry Borrowman has written a book about Fisher titled "Beyond the Call of Duty: The Story of an American Hero in Vietnam."

Cpl. Larry L. Maxam

Maxam was raised in Burbank, Calif. His family joined the LDS Church in 1956. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1965. On Feb. 2, 1968, Cam Lo District Headquarters came under heavy rocket, artillery, mortar and gunfire from a large enemy force, and a portion of the compound's defensive perimeter was destroyed. As enemy soldiers prepared to enter, Maxam ran to an abandoned machine gun and single-handedly defended the perimeter, enduring injuries for almost two hours before he died. His remains were buried in the National Military Cemetery of the Pacific. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously in 1968.

Pvt. 1st Class Sammy L. Davis

Fleek was disappointed he had already published his book when he learned there was one more Mormon Medal of Honor recipient out there. Davis, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War, was baptized this past March.

“I guess that makes my book obsolete,” Fleek joked.

Davis earned his Medal of Honor in 1967 in the same manner as the others. Despite suffering wounds during intense action, he fought the Viet Cong while protecting his fallen soldiers. He even crossed a river on an air mattress to rescue three wounded American soldiers. He received his Medal of Honor the following year. Footage of his award ceremony was used in the 1995 film “Forrest Gump,” with actor Tom Hanks’ head superimposed over that of Davis.

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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