Heroes All

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Audie Murphy is the most decorated soldier of World War II and among his awards is the nation's highest, the Medal of Honor.

Since its inception during the Civil War, only 3,459 medals of honor have been awarded.

Others in this elite group: Sgt. Alvin York, President Theodore Roosevelt, flyer Jimmy Doolittle and General Douglas MacArthur.

But for the most part, these American heroes were just ordinary men who acted with extraordinary courage.

"I jumped on the grenade thinking I was going to be able to save the other marines," says Don Ballard.

"Tommy was wounded very badly, he was shot through the head and I went back in to find him," says Mike Thornton.

"I was out of grenades. I went back to the men in the squad and said give me your grenades and they gladly did," says Joe Rodriguez.

There are now 141 living recipients of the Medal of Honor. Seventy-eight came to the annual convention of the Medal of Honor Society a few weeks back in Shreveport, La.

"I'm the oldest living medal of honor winner alive today," says 93-year-old John Finn. He is the last surviving recipient from the attack on Pearl Harbor, where 15 medals were earned.

"I saw those great big dirty ole red meatballs and I said, 'This is the real McCoy! This is the Japs!'" Finn says.

Finn was chief of ordinance at Kanehoe Bay on the other side of Oahu and just like in the movies, he grabbed a machine gun…

"I was wounded all over. I actually had 21 wounds that were bleeding," he says.

Finn was lucky. He lived.

More often, medals of honor are awarded posthumously. For instance, of the 12 Battle of Normandy recipients, nine were killed in action.

One hundred and thirty-one earned the medal during the Korean conflict, but only 37 made it home alive. And of the 245 for Vietnam, 154 have their name listed on the wall.

"The chances that you'll receive it standing up are not very good. So that alone tells you the status of the medal we wear. I'm very honored," says Ed Freeman.

During the convention, the recipients took time to visit some high schools. It's the first time most of these kids have had the chance to meet real heroes.

Inspiring the next generation has special meaning for the surviving members of the Medal of Honor Society.

"It's never given for something you're ordered to do. It's for something above and beyond…no one plans to get a Medal of Honor," says Leo Thorsness.

Indeed, most of these medals are given not so much for Rambo-style heroics, but for extreme courage while trying to save others.

"We really don't talk about crashing in the water or on land to help somebody," says Thomas Hudner, who purposely crashed his jet into a mountainside in Korea in a futile attempt to rescue a pilot who was trapped in the wreckage of another plane.

"He knew we weren't accomplishing anything and he said to tell his wife Daisy that he loved her, and that was the only message I had to take back to her," he says.

To a man, the Medal of Honor recipients say they were simply doing their duty.

"We were just doing what we're trained to do, and trying to keep each other alive," says Thornton.

"There's nobody here and none that I've ever met that believes they're a hero," says Tom Norris.

But there are many Americans who'd beg to differ…

Over the years, as the men have come home, they've been celebrated by family and friends and more than one girl who was left behind to wait and worry, had a dream come true.

"You know every girl dreams of marrying a hero some day, and yet you don't think you will. it's just so unbelievable," says Ruby Williams.

Her husband, Hershell, earned his medal wielding a flamethrower to clear the way for other marines on Iwo Jima.

Now Hershell Williams serves as chaplain for the Medal of Honor Society. Near the end of the Shreveport convention, there was a moment to pause and remember the eight recipients who'd died during the past year.

  • Tatiana Morales

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