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Stories of American Heroes - Brought to you from the "Home of Heroes" - Pueblo, Colorado

 

Military Records
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An Important Part of History
June 2006


 

FOUND--An American Hero

On July 25, 1944, in France, Staff Sergeant Lawrence "Gunderson's company was pinned down by heavy enemy fire from machine guns and an anti-tank gun. With complete disregard for his personal safety, Staff Sergeant Gunderson, armed only with a rifle and several grenades, skillfully maneuvered within close range of the machine gun and, exposing himself to observed fire from the gun, single-handedly wiped out the entire crew with grenades. Fearless and aggressive, he then attacked the crew of the anti-tank gun at point blank range. Though subject to direct small arms fire and receiving wounds in this encounter that proved fatal, his attack was so fierce that all members of the German anti-tank gun crew were killed or wounded. As a result of his action, the company was enabled to continue its advance."

Staff Sergeant Gunderson was buried in France until 1948, when his parents requested return of their son's remains for burial near his hometown of Stillwater, Minnesota. Beyond the marker at St. Michael's Cemetery in Bayport that marked their son's final resting place, all that remained were family photos and his personal effects, returned after his death. They included pictures, two prayer books, a CIB, Good Conduct Ribbon, wallet, watch, etc. From an "official" standpoint, Lawrence Gunderson was simply one more casualty of the war, and the Army's obligation to the surviving family had been completed.

Sixty years later in nearby Indiana, Monty McDaniel watched the movie "Saving Private Ryan". Scenes of the cemetery sparked his interest in doing an Internet search to locate any information on his uncle, Staff Sergeant Paul Alexander who was killed in action on June 14, 1944, and was subsequently buried at A.B.M.C. Normandy. McDaniel not only found his uncle listed by the American Battle Monuments Commission, but to his complete surprise, learned that in the action that took the young soldier's life, his uncle had performed so heroically as to be awarded the U.S. Army's highest decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross. Armed with this new information, McDaniel sought help to learn more of his uncle's heroism, at last obtaining a copy of First U.S. Army, General Orders No. 70 (October 17, 1944). There, in detail, was the narrative of Staff Sergeant Alexander's final hours of life, and his great heroism. Following the citation for Alexander's award was the name of Staff Sergeant Lawrence W. Gunderson, and the account of heroism that earned the Minnesota man his own DSC.

Monty McDaniel couldn't help but wonder if like his own family, Lawrence Gunderson's family was unaware that he was one of the fewer than 5,000 soldiers who earned the DSC in World War II. After some dedicated "leg work" he at last located the Gunderson family. William and Claire Gunderson, Lawrence's parents, never got the opportunity to learn of their son's heroic actions. Nevertheless, on July 22, 2002, 58 years nearly to the day after Staff Sergeant Gunderson gave his life in defense of freedom, Senator Mark Dayton presented the award to Lawrence's brother John, also a veteran. Seven of the young hero's brothers and sisters were present for a long-over-due recognition of a forgotten hero. 

The story of Lawrence Gunderson's DSC is at once, both inspirational and tragic. It is heartwarming to see a lost hero found and properly recognized. It is tragic that the young soldier's parents never knew of his great heroism, and that in effect for more than half-a-century a family was deprived of an important part of their own American legacy. The same could be said for Paul Alexander. Unfortunately, these stories are not a unique incident of a single "lost" General Order.

These are but four more examples, in addition to the two aforementioned, and I could list many more. In the development of my own database, I frequently visit the WWII Registry in search of such information as home town data on recipients in my database. All too often I finds posts by a family member referencing a Silver Star, when in fact I can confirm that the individual received a DSC or Navy Cross. My assumption in most of these cases is that a posthumous award of the Silver Star was subsequently upgraded, but the news of the upgrade never made its way to the family.

MILITARY RECORDS
It is a fact that, reports of the fire in St. Louis aside, it is quite easy for veterans or family members of veterans to obtain most or all military records, including individual awards, from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC). In fact, third parties can obtain a considerable portion of ANY veteran's record of military service by filing a Freedom of Information Act Request. This is a procedure I urge ALL veterans and family members of veterans to avail themselves of. The process of getting more detailed information may take time and effort but it is well worth it. Unfortunately, many veterans or their families, are still not aware of the process, or the ease, with which it can be accomplished. And in some cases, the fire does present some obstacles.

Where individual awards for valor are concerned, virtually EVERY citation exists if one digs deep enough. The military is redundant in paperwork, if not other things, and for every award there is a General Order authorizing that award. In even those cases where a citation may NOT be available from NPRC, a copy of the General Order can be found in other Government archives, as well as multiple other sources. The problem is often ferreting them out, and unless one knows EXACTLY what to look for, or where to look, that task may be nearly impossible.

For this very reason, much of the responsibility for preserving the history of military awards has fallen on the shoulders of dedicated private citizens with a historical bent. Major awards for valor in World War I are readily available thanks to Harry R. Stringer, who published compendiums following that war that includes citations for Medals of Honor, DSCs, Navy Crosses, and DSMs. Unfortunately, these works are no longer widely available, and when searching for a copy to purchase you can expect to pay anywhere from $100 - $250 for them. Former Marine Corps Historian Jane Blakeney published a complete roster of USMC award recipients in 1955, a large (and now EXPENSIVE) book which is extensive but doesn't include most citations. The late Colonel Albert F. Gleim dedicated his efforts to compiling rosters and citations that have become the "bible" for award researchers, and since his death Nick McDowell has continued that effort of sorting through tens of thousands of citations to develop as complete and accurate a "roll of honor" as possible. Others similarly continue this important work, but I believe this is a responsibility that belongs on the shoulders of government, and suggest it is time for legislation to effectively deal with the problem.

STOLEN VALOR
Before dealing with such proposed legislation, I would like to address a related matter currently before Congress. Forgotten REAL heroes like Lawrence Gunderson and Paul Alexander aside, there is no shortage of military heroes. Sadly, all too often, they are E-Bay warriors who have purchased unearned medals and/or citations to bolster lies about military service and heroic actions. Again, the process of verification all too frequently falls to private citizens. Chuck and Mary Shantag of the POW Network voluntarily spend their own money and thousands of hours separating TRUE heroes from the wannabe heroes. Seldom does a day go by when I too, do not receive at least one report of a bogus hero. Under current law it is illegal to wear ANY award one didn't earn, but generally unless it is a Medal of Honor, DSC, or Navy Cross, charges are rarely filed (and even in those cases prosecution is often iffy as many US Attorneys do not see this as anything other than a petty crime.) Except in Illinois, where a state version of Stolen Valor passed unanimously this year,  is NOT illegal to IMPERSONATE a hero by making false claims to military service or awards. Currently, you can purchase an official-looking citation for virtually ANY military award, have your name imprinted on it, hang it on your wall and even include a copy of it in your resume, without violating the law. You can purchase any medal other than the Medal of Honor, have a local engraver cut your name and purported date of heroism on the back, and pass it around for all to see without breaking the law. The desire to become a hero is so prevalent that, according to a 2000 Census Bureau report, as many as FOUR out of FIVE individuals who claim to be veterans of service in Vietnam, are NOT Vietnam War veterans.

The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 (HR 3352 and S 1998) was introduced last year to deal with that problem. F.B.I. Special Agent Tom Cottone, who has investigated scores of Stolen Valor cases recently noted in an AP Interview: “If we don’t maintain the integrity of these military awards, the real ones won’t mean anything.” The Stolen Valor Act is designed to do just that, and at the moment I am giving my time and efforts to try and see this measure reach the floor of the House and Senate for a vote. If Congress fails to see the importance of preserving the integrity of military awards by passing a Stolen Valor Act, the rest of my rant here becomes pointless. Without something to insure the integrity of military records, we might as well open the gates for anyone and everyone to claim they, a friend, or a relative earned whichever awards they want. If, however, some punishment can be legislated to deal with such impersonation issues, then it becomes increasingly important to establish an OFFICIAL and readily accessible database of the REAL HEROES.

 ROLL OF HONOR
In 1917 Congress mandated a "Roll of Honor" for recipients of our highest military award, the Medal of Honor. Due to that mandate, it is a rather easy process for family members of MOH recipients to access the history of valor in their familial heritage. It is also quick and easy to expose a fraudulent Medal of Honor recipient.

At nearly the same time that a Medal of Honor Roll was established, Congress also began authorizing additional awards such as the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross and Silver Star. Because these are considered lesser awards, no roll of honor was mandated. This is tragic since, out of some 30 million men and women who have served in uniform since these awards were authorized, fewer than 20,000 have received these awards. Their prestige is echoed by General George Patton, recipient of two DSCs who noted, "I'd rather be a lieutenant with the DSC, than a general without one."

Behind each of these lesser awards is a General Order, setting forth whom is actually a recipient of the award, and at least a brief narrative of the actions that warranted the award. I have spent the last five years developing a database of these recipients, and currently have compiled the citations for nearly 75%, which is what enables me to positively respond to individuals like those mentioned above, restoring to them a part of their family history. Of course the fact remains that, despite friends like Nick McDowell, Bruce Swander, and others, my database is not complete nor is it OFFICIAL.

I believe it is time for veterans and family members of veterans, to call upon Congress to revisit the precedent established for the Medal of Honor in 1917, and call for a complete, accurate, and publicly assessable Roll of Honor (including citations where applicable) for all awards for valor as well as for the Purple Heart. Even without the great advancements in technology available to us today, following World War I the U.S. Army published Decorations, U.S. Army, 1862-1926, which includes ALL citations for the Medal of Honor, DSC, and Distinguished Service Medal. Supplements followed to include LATE AWARDS and recent actions up until 1941. Thereafter the practice fell generally to disuse, though various Army and Navy publications provided lists in sporadic publications. Today's advances in technology give us a tremendous advantage in compiling, parsing out, and disseminating ALL records.

Imagine being able to go to an OFFICIAL government Internet site to look up a family member or comrade with whom you served, and immediately seeing a complete list of all their awards along with the citations documenting their actions. Conceive of being able to visit your local library to research a family member and locating a shelf with an Encyclopedia of Valor wherein you can find names and citations. (Our own DSC/NC/AFC VALOR BOOK SERIES demonstrates the potential for this.) 

While this seems a monumental task, quite frankly, it is a relatively simple matter of data entry. The General Orders exist, and there are tens of thousands of them, but the record is there waiting to be digitized. In five years, with virtually no funding (other than a $2,000 grant from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation which is WHY the Marine Corps database is now complete), I have compiled the records and citations of 24,000 recipients of the top TWO levels of awards. Imagine what OFFICIAL sources, with proper funding and access to all NARA/NPRC/Pentagon General Orders could accomplish.

Such a record of TRUE valor is needed to insure that heroes like Lawrence Gunderson, Paul Alexander, and others, will never be forgotten by a nation of citizens who appreciate their service, their valor, and their sacrifice.

 

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June 6, 2006
Doug, thank you for bringing this problem to public attention. All servicemen families deserve to know the story of their kin. I look forward to working with you and other veterans' leaders to further explore the ideas you mentioned in your Op-Ed. Best,
Congressman John Salazar
June 6, 2006
The more than 62,000 members of the Marine Corps League strongly support your efforts and thank you for all you do to preserve the purity and sanctity of America's Heroes. We have certainly had our share of "wannabees" and it seems that in times like this they are more prevalent than ever. We stand behind you in your efforts to make those records more easily accessible. Please don't hesitate to let us know if there is ever anything we can do in support of your work. Again, many thanks for your dedication and never ending hard work. Semper Fidelis - 
Mike Michael A. Blum 
Executive Director, Marine Corps League
Mr. Sterner, thank you for picking up the banner in working to ensure that our servicemen and women are not forgotten through their many heroic deeds. Although there are many who consider those of us currently serving to be heroes, I would suggest the true heroes are the ones who paid the ultimate price in sacrificing their lives on the alter of freedom. God Bless all of our service men and women. 
David Draughon
Vice President Veterans Fraternity CSU-Pueblo.
david.draughon(a)us.army.mil  Pueblo, CO

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