By Harold Schachter
In observance of Veterans Day, Ramona Library, will open its Community Room for a 90-minute PBS documentary, Medal Of Honor, on Tuesday, Nov. 10, at 6 p.m.
A big screen has been especially procured for this viewing. Admission is free.
This film by award-winning producer, director and cinematographer Roger Sherman is narrated by award-winning actress Alfre Woodard. Noted award-winning documentarian Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz) is its executive director.
Sherman and Burns co-founded Florentine Films, which recently produced the six-part PBS 12-hour series, The National Parks: America’s Greatest Idea.
Highlighted by the stories and interviews with a dozen living Medal of Honor (MoH) recipients, the film relates the history of the medal from its creation during the Civil War to the present.
Three of the featured recipients earned their respective Medals of Honor in World War II, three during the Korean War, and six in Vietnam. All eight awards of the MoH since Vietnam have been posthumous awards.
In addition to the living recipients, the documentary, through archival footage, photographs and writings, tells the stories of many other MoH recipients such as Sgt. Alvin York, who served in World War I.
When Medal Of Honor was about to debut on PBS stations across the nation on the night of Nov. 5, 2008, it elicited many rave reviews from sneak-peek critics such as this one from Jacqueline Cutler of Tribune Media Service:
“A story of humanity at its best. Alfre Woodard narrates the deeply moving documentary that expertly matches gut-wrenching footage of war to the veterans’ stories.”
As playwright Stephen Lang expresses it, these people were mavericks. They didn’t do what they were ordered to do. It was an action above and beyond the call of duty and, by taking the action that they did, they altered what was a foregone expectation or conclusion as to the outcome.
Dorothy Rabinowitz, a reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, put it this way:
“Medal of Honor is that rare thing—a film shot through with the most emotional of themes that succeeds in rendering portraits of unimaginable heroism with discipline and dignity.
Along with story after story of heroic enterprise accompanied by relevant splendid footage, this film provides a hard-minded account of the medal’s history.”
TV Week’s critic put it more succinctly:
“A breathtaking look at a rare breed.”
Among the stories told is that of Navy SEAL Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Edwin Thornton, the most recent living recipient to have earned the MoH for his actions in Vietnam.
Thornton’s actions were so extraordinary that they begged credulity.
When it came time for the Joint Chiefs of Staff to vote on the approval of Thornton’s award, there was just one dissenting vote. It came from the then Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.
Zumwalt either could not or would not believe that Thornton had done what his citation stated he’d done and still be alive to tell about it.
Thornton had rescued and saved the lives of two wounded members of his SEAL team by swimming for more than two hours at sea, towing both men with him. One of those men was his team’s severely wounded commanding officer, Lt. Thomas R. Norris. Norris had been awarded the MoH some six months earlier for his part in rescuing two downed U.S. Air Force pilots, one of which was Mark Clark, the grandson of World War II and Korean War Gen. Mark Wayne Clark.
As such, Thornton became the first and thus far the only recipient of the MoH to save the life of another MoH recipient. But the documentary fails to mention that fact, and the citation for Thornton’s award makes no mention of his having simultaneously rescued the second man, Kwan, a South Vietnamese member of their SEAL’s reconnoissance team.
Then there’s Ronald E. Rosser, an Army corporal fighting in Korea’s subzero winters, who displayed incredible bravery and valor against a vastly outnumbering enemy. When his regimental commander field-phoned Rosser to tell him to leave harm’s way because he’d been recommended for the MoH (and the military doesn’t want the public relations embarrassment and criticism, should a MoH nominee become a combat casualty), Rosser audaciously told his CO:
“Colonel, I know you’re not hard of hearing. You people can put me in for whatever you want to, but you can’t make me take it. Now you leave me alone or take the medal and stick it where the sun don’t shine, ‘cause I’m not comin’ off the damn hill, not until the regiment comes off.”
And that’s where Cpl. Rosser remained for more than three and a half frigid months.
These MoH recipients have never thought of themselves as “heroes.” They were just doing the job that they were trained for and paid to do.
But as Linda Stasi of the New York Post put it:
“An astounding array of stories about an unbelievable collection of unexpected heroes. This special is so awe-inspiring. It is that good and that honest. Do yourself a favor. Don’t miss it.”
WHEN: Nov. 10 6 p.m.
WHERE: Ramona Library Community Room
1406 Montecito Road