The Medal of Honor is America's highest award for military valor, and its recipients are rightfully revered for their heroism. But at two points in history, father-son pairs earned these medals for military bravery across generations, basically guaranteeing that the grandson would be a disappointment.
At only two times in American history have father-son pairs both earned Medals of Honor. One pair was based in the Civil War and then World War II combat, and the other pair in the Spanish-American War and World War I combat. All four would make their last names famous for generations to come.
Arthur MacArthur receives the medal for actions in 1863
Arthur MacArthur earned his fame rushing the Confederate defenses on Missionary Ridge.
(Images: Public domain; Graphic: WATM)
First Lt. Arthur MacArthur was only 18 and an adjutant in the 24th Wisconsin Infantry when the regiment was arrayed against stiff defenses on Missionary Ridge in Tennessee near the border with Georgia. The Confederates had used this position to harass and attack Union forces for some time, and it was the last great barrier to the invasion of Georgia.
But the Confederate forces had a line of rifle pits at the base of ridge and trenches and other defenses at the top. The Union attack was ordered against the ridge, and confused orders led to a successful melee in the pits, but then a sporadic and faltering attack up toward the trenches.
It was during this attack up that MacArthur saw the Regimental color bearer go down, and he leaped forward to get the colors back up so the men would continue attacking. He was wounded twice while rushing the colors up the hill, but he still planted the flag and then fought to defend it, effectively leading an attack that took the ridge as well as the land 2.5 miles past it in a single day. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, promoted to major, and later took command of the regiment.
Douglas MacArthur defends the Philippines until all is lost
Gen. Douglas MacArthur returns to the Philippines in World War II.
Arthur would retire as a lieutenant general, but one of his sons would eclipse him in valor awards and rank. Douglas MacArthur was already a full general, and the recipient of seven Silver Stars and three Distinguished Service Crosses when Japan invaded the Philippines in December 1941.
It was quickly apparent that Japan would have the upper hand, but Douglas was at least as tenacious as his father. He had his men establish defensive line after defensive line, conducting a controlled withdrawal that soaked the ground in blood for every inch they gave up. Eventually, he was forced to pull back to the Bataan Peninsula, allowing his men to defend themselves in more mountainous terrain, but also cutting off further escape and giving up the cities.
This whole time, Gen. MacArthur was often at the front, often under enemy fire. But his calmness under fierce attacks helped his men keep their cool in their desperate defense. It was only after President Franklin D. Roosevelt was forced to order the general off of the islands on February 22, 1942, to prevent his capture that Douglas withdrew. And he did so with a promise to return. He would receive the Medal of Honor in April for his tenacity, but his men would suffer a death march.
Teddy Roosevelt leads the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill
Col. Theodore Roosevelt as the commander of the Rough Riders.
Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt campaigned hard for war with Spain, and when the U.S. declared that war in April 1898, he wasn't about to leave the fighting to everyone else. But, he knew the war might be short and that he was not yet ready to command a regiment. So he agitated for the creation of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, but he used his connections to be the second-ranking officer, not the commander.
He got his wish and was brought into the Volunteer Army as a lieutenant colonel and sent to Cuba, but only 8 of the 12 companies were able to get space on the ships, and none of their horses were brought over. Still, they performed well and, on July 1, 1898, were sent against the defenses on San Juan Hill at Santiago de Cuba. By this point, Roosevelt had been promoted to commander.
The attack plan said they must move slow, but the unit was coming under heavy fire, and Roosevelt felt the battle would be lost to attrition before it could take the heights. So he rushed his men forward in a series of bursts despite the fierce defense, and they succeeded. He posthumously received the Medal of Honor for these actions in 2001.
At left, Maj. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., he would later serve in World War II as a brigadier general and earn the Medal of Honor.
(Library of Congress)
His son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., would never attain the presidency like his father did, but he would fight in World Wars I and II. He earned the Distinguished Service Cross and two Silver Stars in World War I, and then came back into service in World War II as an almost 60-year-old man. But still, he earned another two Silver Stars in combat in North Africa near one of his own sons (who also earned a Silver Star, there).
In the preparations for D-Day, he pushed repeatedly for permission to go ashore with the first wave, but his division commander kept denying it on the basis of the brigadier's rank and age. So, Roosevelt, Jr., wrote to his distant cousin, then-President Franklin Roosevelt. Before the reply came back, the division commander finally relented and gave Roosevelt, Jr., permission, certain he would never see him again.
The 4th Infantry Division, like nearly everyone else that day, landed out of position, but they were lucky to have their deputy commanding general there to take charge. Roosevelt, Jr., personally led infantry waves into position under fire multiple times while walking with a cane. His re-making of the division landing plan was credited with keeping Omaha Beach open, and the commanding general gave his compliments when he landed with a later wave.
Roosevelt Jr. was nominated for promotion to major general, the Medal of Honor, and command of the 90th Infantry Division, but he died of a heart attack just hours before Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called to give him the news. The medal was awarded posthumously.
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