Five area men gain Medal of Honor

Those here during World War II will probably remember well the days of rationing run by the Office of Price Administration. Stamps were used to purchase many commodities, ranging from sugar to gasoline. Stamps were issued according to size of a family.

     At first glance, the five soldiers seemed to have little in common.
     Each fought in a different war.
     Two reached the rank of sergeant, but a major, a corporal and a private were also represented.
     One fought against Geronimo and other Apache chiefs during the Indian wars if the 1880s. Another was the great-grandson of a famous Winnebago chief.
     Nevertheless, the five shared a couple of things. All came for the Eau Claire area. More importantly, each earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award.
     Those receiving the award were:
     Sgt. Horace Ellis, 24, Chippewa Falls, honored for his actions during a Civil War battle at Weldon Station, Va., Aug. 21, 1864. He received his medal Dec. 1, 1864.
     Maj. Hugh J. McGrath, 43, Eau Claire, shot and killed Nov. 7, 1899, while leading a charge near Noveleta, The Philippines, during the Philippines Insurrection.
     Pvt. Clayton Slack, Hayward, captured a German machinegun nest during World War I. Prior to his death early this year, Slack was the oldest living Medal of Honor winner in Wisconsin.
     Sgt. Charles Mower, Chippewa Falls, died at age 19 in a stream at Capoocan, Leyte, The Philippines, fighting the Japanese in World War II. His metal was awarded posthumously to his parents.
     Cpl. Mitchell Red Cloud, Jr., 26, Black River Falls, died Nov. 5, 1950 near Chonghyon, Korea. He was the first Winnebago Indian awarded the Medal of Honor. Gen. Omar Bradley presented the medal posthumously to Red Cloud's mother April 5, 1951, at ceremonies at the Pentagon.
     Military decorations of these five men nearly span the history of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Few, if any, area men were involved in the Revolutionary War, but there was no Medal of Honor at that time.
     On Aug. 7, 1782, Gen. George Washington created the Badge of Military Merit, first official award for United States fighting forces. This award was forerunner of the present-day Purple Heart.

Created during Civil War

     No other medals were authorized until creation of the Medal of Honor during the Civil War.
     On July 12, 1862, the Army established the Medal of Honor, shaped as a five-pointed star with a ring of 34 stars, representing the states of the union before Secession.
      Depicted on the medal was the goddess Minerva, symbol for America. She held the shield of the U.S. The reverse side of the medal was blank for engraving the recipient's name, rank and unit and the date and place of his heroism.
     The model was redesigned in the early 19000s and patented because certain veterans' organizations were making cheap facsimiles.
     Today, the medal bears the head of Minerva, signifying righteous war and wisdom. A valor bar is also suspended from the medal.
     Designed originally as a breast decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor is now the only medal worn around the neck. The medal cannot be awarded to citizens of foreign countries.

History of controversy

     This highest U.S. military medal has a history rich with controversy. The medal was subject of considerable debate at its establishment. Some foes considered it a symbol of the type of European monarchy the colonies had fought to ban.
     In 1916, a board was created to investigate the 2,625 Medals of Honor awarded to that time. The panel found several abuses involving the medal that supposedly goes only for examples of "conspicuous bravery."
     In 1917, 911 names were deleted from the list of winners, including 864 members of the 27th Maine Regiment awarded the medal as a unit for the defense of Washington, D.C., in 1863. Records revealed few men in the regiment saw combat action.
     Also deleted from the list was Dr. Mary T. Walker, the only woman ever awarded the medal. A member of the Army Medical Corps, she received the citation from President Lincoln for saving lives during the Battle of Gettysburg July 1-3, 1863.
     There are three Medals of Honor, those of the Army, Air Force and Navy. The Navy metal is the oldest, established in 1861.

Rigid requirements

     Requirements for winning the honor are rigid. A serviceman's action must be "so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes his gallantry beyond the call of duty from lesser forms of bravery; and it must not be the type of deed which, if not done, would not be subject him to any justified criticism."
     There must be at least two eyewitnesses to the act of "great personal risk." Recommendation for the Medal of Honor must be made within three years of the cited act, and actual award must be within five years.
     Recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor receive a number of fringe benefits. Included is a tax-free monthly lifetime pension of $100, plus free transportation on any military transport flight within the United States.
     Sons of winners receive automatic appointment to military academies, providing they pass physical and mental requirements. Presumably, this privilege is now being extended to daughters of winners.
     While sources differ on the exact number, few Wisconsin men have earned the Medal of Honor. Of the approximately 3,300 medals warded, only about 38, or slightly more than one percent of the winners, had roots in the Badger state.
     Wisconsin residents won their greatest amount of Medals of Honor in World War II when state servicemen won 14. In the Civil War, seven Medals of Honor were awarded to Badger residents.
     Each of the five winners from the Eau Claire area won the medal under unique circumstances.

Sgt. Horace Ellis

     Visitors to O'Neil Creek Cemetery north of Chippewa Falls may note a simple weathered white grave marker, indicating burial place of the area's first Medal of Honor winner.
     Sgt. Ellis received his honor for an action that would not be out of place in Stephen Crane's "Red Badge of Courage." Engaged in battle at Weldon Station, Va., on the afternoon of Aug. 21, 1864, Ellis seized the colors of the opposing Confederate Army unit, an action which spurred his fellow Union soldiers to rout their foe.
     Armed only with a six-shot revolver, Ellis shot a Confederate soldier before he could reach the Dixie flag. Racing toward the rebel colors, he struck the color sergeant and ripped the flag from his hands.
     A few months before the end of the war, Ellis was seriously wounded at Gravelly Run. Never fully recovering, he was hospitalized at Washington, D.C., Indianapolis and Madison. H returned to Chippewa Falls and died within two years at age 26.
     Of the 2,947 Union regiments, only two experienced more casualties than the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, the unit of which Ellis was a member. In fact, Ellis' unit experienced the highest percentage of casualties of all regiments, 19.7 percent.

Maj. Hugh J. McGrath

Maj. Hugh J. McGrath

     Maj. Hugh J. McGrath was apparently the only Eau Claire resident and the only area commissioned officer to receive the Medal of Honor.
     Born April 8, 1856, at Fond du Lac, he came to Eau Claire with his parents at age 3. He was a graduate of Eau Claire public schools, University of Wisconsin and West Point Military Academy.
     In 1880 he joined the 4th U.S. Cavalry and attended infantry and cavalry school Fort Leavenworth, Kan. For three years he was an instructor in military science at the University of Wisconsin. It was after this time that Maj. McGrath fought against Geronimo and other Apaches in New Mexico and Arizona.
     While at Leavenworth, McGrath met the daughter of Gen. Blair. He married Lillian Blair May 1, 1886. The couple had one son.
     On Nov. 22, 1896, McGrath, married Mary Carson at Savannah, Ga. His second wife was the daughter of William Carson, Eau Claire.
     Historians describe Maj. McGrath as "a young man full of zeal and chivalry, a live, wide-awake officer, a man for emergencies who would undertake anything he was commanded to do by his superior officers. Nothing was impossible for him…in short, he was a model soldier."
     McGrath's merits became apparent when he single-handedly captured two canoes which he later used to transport his men across a stream, enabling them to take an enemy position.
     Shortly thereafter McGrath received a fatal wound while leading a head-on charge on the Town of Novelta.
     According to the 1962 Wisconsin Blue Book, McGrath held the rank of captain when he earned his Medal of Honor.

Pvt. Clayton Slack

Pvt. Clayton Slack

     Medal of Honor winner Clayton Slack was in many ways one of the most unusual of the area recipients.
     He was the only private among the five area award winners. He was also the only one of the five to live any length of time after his heroic deed.
     The only Wisconsinite to win the Medal of Honor in World War I, Slack was awarded a total of 13 medals, including the Purple Heart and Silver Star. He also won the highest military honors awarded to a foreigner by France, Great Britain, Italy and Belgium.

Praised by Pershing

     In October, 1918, Gen John Pershing told Slack, "you've done more to win the war than I have."
     Slack's act of heroism came near Verdun, France, about one month before the end of the war.
     Observing two Germans sneaking through the brush, Slack reported the information to his sergeant, suggesting something be done before the enemy established a foothold.
     "If you're so damn brave, go after it yourself," the sergeant replied. Slack did.
     Sneaking behind enemy lines, shells falling all around, Slack surprised the Germans, capturing a sergeant and a lieutenant.
     Slack was earning $33 monthly (with $5.60 deducted for insurance) while he was assigned as a machine-gunner with the 33rd Illinois national Guard, Co. D.
     A few years later, Slack embarked on a more profitable career. Starting in Feb, 1925, Slack went into show business, presenting a military show in theaters in 42 states.
     Dressed in his old Army uniform with all 13 medals prominently displayed, Slack showed four different military films of World War I and the two German machineguns he captured.
     His show drew rave reviews from a number of metropolitan newspapers and slack was awarded keys to a Peace Bridge linking Buffalo, N.Y. and Canada.
     At the pinnacle of his show business career, Slack earned $3,000 in a one-week period in 1929.
     Later years of his life were spent at his resort in the Hayward area, but Slack still took an interest in military and foreign affairs. This included some fairly scathing remarks on the Vietnam War, and event that Slack termed "the biggest blunder this country ever made."
     "I wouldn't go myself today, if I were a young man," Slack said in and interview during the war.

Sgt. Charles Mower

Sgt. Charles Mower

     Another sergeant from the area received the Medal of Honor.
     Sgt. Charles Mower, Chippewa Falls, a 1942 graduate of McDonell High School, was killed by a Japanese bullet while fighting with Co. A of the 34th Infantry near Capoocan, Leyte.
     Mower was assistant squad leader of a unit crossing a stream in the area. An ambush by Japanese forces resulted in death of the group's squad leader.
     Directing his men from a stream churning with Japanese fire, Mower was wounded while ordering his men to a spot from which they could defend themselves.
     Half-submerged in the stream, Mower continued to give orders, refusing shelter or help.
     Finally he was discovered by the Japanese who concentrated their fire on him. He died while urging his men to safety.
     In 1945, the Medal of Honor was awarded posthumously to his family.

Cpl. Mitchell Red Cloud Jr.

Cpl. Mitchell Red Cloud

     A Winnebago Indian from Black River Falls was honored with the Medal of Honor 25 years ago.
     Red Cloud was born July 2, 1924, near Hatfield, Jackson County, to Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell Red Cloud Sr. He received elementary education at Clay and Komensky rural school. He spent one year at Winnebago Indian School at Neillsville and then attended Black River Falls High School until he enlisted in the Marines at age 16.
     The Marine was the great-grandson of Chief Winneshiek, one of the best-known chiefs during the last years of the English occupation. Winneshiek was one of the first Indians to leave southern Wisconsin after the Black Hawk War (1832). He brought with him a small band of Winnebagos and settled in the Black River valley.
     His great-grandson was the eighth American to receive the Medal of Honor in the Korean Conflict.
     The citation reads: "Cpl. Red Cloud, Co. E., 19th Infantry Regiment, distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty…
     "From his position on the point of a ridge immediately in front of the company command post, he was the first to detect the approach of Chinese Communist forces and gave the alarm as enemy charged from a brush covered area less than 100 feet from him.
     "Springing up, he delivered devastating point-blank automatic rifle fire into the advancing enemy…
     "With utter fearlessness he maintained his firing position until severely wounded by enemy fire. Refusing assistance, he pulled himself to his feet and wrapped his arm around a tree, continuing his deadly fire until again, and fatally wounded…"
     Many tributes have been paid posthumously to Red Cloud. Black River Falls High School student council members erected a plaque in his memory in the school library.
     An infantry rifle range at Fort Benning, Ga., was named for Red Cloud. Red Cloud Park, La Crosse; Red Cloud Memorial Park, Black River Falls; and Thompson-Red Cloud V.F.W. Post at Black River Falls all carry his name.
     Citizens of Black River Falls held "Cpt. Mitchell Red Cloud Jr. Day" April 20, 1951, when Mrs. Nellie Red Could (his mother) returned home from Washington, D.C.
     Red Cloud was buried March 26, 1955, at Decorah Cemetery at the Indian Mission near Black River Falls. Ancient rites for a fallen warrior were conducted.
     In the summer of 1967 the simple government-issue grave marker in the cemetery was replaced by a large granite marker donated by a monument builders association.
     Winnegabo lore holds that when a man is killed in battle, he lives forever. He may come down to earth again in human form or may roam the skies as long as he wishes.
     Other Medal of Honor winners had various ties to the Eau Claire area. One was a T-5 gunner Gibson, a Chicago native who was buried Dec. 1, 1948, in Nora Cemetery.
     Although Gibson never lived in Rice Lake, his parents, now deceased, lived on Hy. 48 on the west edge of the city. They were awarded the Medal of Honor for their son Sept. 15, 1944, at a military ceremony at Camp McCoy.
     T-5 Gibson was killed Jan 28, 1944, on the Anzio beachhead near Isola Bella, Italy. He was a company cook killed in action after he volunteered to lead a squad of riflemen on a combat mission.
     Facing enemy artillery, machine gun and rifle fire, Gibson destroyed four enemy positions, killed five and captured two German soldiers before being fatally wounded.
     A letter was written home by a Sgt. William White to his parents in Wisconsin in 1944 describing the Italian campaign where Gibson was killed.
     It read in part:
     "…then everything was quiet. We didn't lose any time getting there and found altogether Eric had killed five Jerries, captured two and destroyed for machine gun nests.
     "Guess we would have all been wiped out except for him. They say he is going to get the Congressional Medal of Honor. That is, his mother will get it. Eric isn't coming back.
     "Mom, if you have gas tickets enough, won't you and dad drive over to see his folks. Their name is Mr. and Mrs. Erland Gibson, they live on a farm near Rice Lake. Tell them how Eric died. And, Mom, tell them that he was a swell guy.
     "P.S. As you see, I've been promoted to sergeant. Somehow, Mom, it don't seem right. Eric was only a corporal."
     All these men shared something in common - they were all heroes in the eyes of their country.
     Indeed, they had earned the "award made in the name of Congress to any person who has distinguished himself in conflict with the enemy by gallantry and courage, at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty."

--Steve Kinderman

Extracted from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram
Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
Used with permission.

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