32 South Carolinians have received the Medal of Honor — Here are their stories

State - Regional

President Donald Trump awards the Medal of Honor to Army Sgt. Maj. Thomas P. Payne in the East Room of the White House on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — South Carolina’s tradition of military service has attracted the attention of the nation’s top leaders.

More than 30 people who were born in South Carolina have received the Medal of Honor since it was created more than 150 years ago. 

The medal, which requires nominees to receive presidential approval before it is granted, is given to those who distinguish themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.

It’s considered the highest award for military valor. There have been more than 3,527 medals awarded, with 19 people receiving more than one. There are 67 living Medal of Honor recipients, as of May 2021. 

The most medals were awarded for actions during the Civil War, when 1,523 were awarded, followed by 472 in World War II. More recently, 18 have been awarded for actions in the War on Terrorism in Afghanistan, and seven for the War on Terrorism in Iraq. 

One of the most recent awards was given to Sgt. Maj. Thomas Payne, a South Carolinian who repeatedly ran into a burning building to save dozens of hostages. The award was presented to Payne by then-President Donald Trump on Sept. 11, 2020 at the White House. 

Other awardees have included men who jumped on grenades to save their comrades, soldiers who led assaults despite being wounded and a man who escaped enslavement. 

Here are the 32 people born in South Carolina who have received a Medal of honor, as of May 2021, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society:

  1. Webster Anderson

Born: July 15, 1933 in Winnsboro

Conflict: Vietnam War

Branch: Army

Anderson’s defensive position was attacked by a North Vietnamese Army infantry unit. When the army crossed the defensive perimeter, “Sfc. Anderson, with complete disregard for his personal safety, mounted the exposed parapet of his howitzer position and became the mainstay of the defense of the battery position.” He also provided rifle and grenade fire against the soldiers trying to overrun him. Two enemy grenades exploded at his feet, severely wounding his legs. Unable to stand, he propped himself up and continued to fire the howitzer. When he saw a grenade land near a wounded member of his crew, he took and threw it over the parapet. It exploded, wounding him again. He continued, refusing to be evacuated and encouraged his men.

  1. Thomas Eugene “Gene” Atkins

Born: Feb. 5, 1921 in Campobello

Conflict: World War II

Branch: Army

Atkins fought on the Villa Verde Trail in the Philippine Islands. While on a ridge outside of a perimeter defense, two companies of Japanese soldiers attacked them, wounding Atkins. He returned fire, and after repelling the enemy soldiers, he remained where he was, despite a machine gun shooting at him. “The Japanese repeatedly made fierce attacks, but for four hours Pfc. Atkins determinedly remained in his foxhole, bearing the brunt of each assault and maintaining steady and accurate fire until each charge was repulsed,” according to a narrative of the event. Four hours after the fighting started, there were 13 Japanese soldiers dead in front of him, and he had fired all 400 rounds he and his two dead companies had. He also used three rifles until each of them jammed. After leaving his position to get more ammo, he saw a Japanese inside the perimeter, grabbed a rifle and killed him. 

  1. Charles H. Barker

Born: April 12, 1935 in Pickens County

Conflict: Korean War

Branch: Army

Barker and his patrol surprised an enemy group that was digging encampments. When the fighting escalated and his platoon retreated, Barker “gallantly maintained a defense and was last seen in close hand-to-hand combat with the enemy.” His “unflinching courage, consummate devotion to duty, and supreme sacrifice enabled the patrol to complete the mission and effect an orderly withdrawal to friendly lines, reflecting lasting glory upon himself and upholding the highest traditions of the military service.”

  1. Robert Blake

Born: Date and South Carolina town unlisted.

Conflict: Civil War

Branch: Navy

On Christmas Day, 1863, Blake was on a gunboat and fighting with an enemy on John’s Island. Blake, who escaped enslavement, “carried out his duties bravely throughout the engagement, which resulted in the enemy’s abandonment of positions, leaving a caisson and one gun behind.”

  1. James C. Dozier

Born:Oct. 24, 1974 in Columbia

Conflict: World War I

Branch: Army

Dozier was commanding two platoons when he was wounded early into an attack. When his platoons were held up by machine-gun fire, “he disposed his men in the best cover available and with a soldier continued forward to attack a machine-gun nest.” He sneaked up on the enemy soldiers, killed the entire crew with grenades and gunfire and then captured Germans in a nearby dugout. 

  1. Middleton S. Elliott

Born: Oct. 16, 1872 in Beauford

Conflict: Mexican Campaign (Vera Cruz)

Branch: Navy

On April 21-22, 1914 in Vera Cruz, Elliott “was eminent and conspicuous in the efficient establishment and operation of the base hospital, and in his cool judgement and courage in supervising first-aid stations on the firing line and removing the wounded.”

  1. Gary E. Foster

Born: Nov. 6, 1894 in Spartanburg

Conflict: World War I

Branch: Army

Foster’s company was trapped by machine-gun fire from a sunken road when he and another officer attacked the machine-gun nests. After the other officer was wounded, Foster used grenades and his pistol to capture 18 soldiers and kill several more.

  1. Ernest A. Garlington

Born: Feb. 20, 1953 In Newberry Hill

Conflict: Indian Campaigns (Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota)

Branch: Army

No narrative was available on the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s website. 

The 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre killed 150 Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, although some historians think the true death count was twice as many. About half of those killed were women and children. Twenty Medals of Honor were awarded for U.S. soldiers’ involvement in the massacre. Congress apologized for the massacre in 1990, but did not revoke the medals. The “Remove the Stain Act” was proposed in 2019 to rescind the medals, but has not passed.

  1. Thomas L. Hall

Born: 1893 in Fort Mill

Conflict: World War I

Branch: Army

Hall led his platoon past two machine-gun nests before being stopped 800 yards from their destination by machine-gun fire. After ordering his men to take cover, he advanced alone and killed five enemy soldiers with his bayonet. He was mortally wounded while attacking another machine-gun nest.

  1. James D. Heriot

Born: Nov. 2, 1890 in Providence

Conflict: World War I

Branch: Army

Heriot and four other soldiers attacked an enemy machine-gun nest. Two of his men were killed while trying to take the nest, and Heriot charged it alone, going through the fire for 30 yards, and getting shot several times in the arm. The attack led the enemy to surrender. He was killed later that day while charging another nest. 

  1. Richmond H. Hilton

Born: Oct. 8, 1896 in Westville

Conflict: World War I

Branch: Army

Hilton’s company was moving through a village when they were held up by machine-gun fire. Hilton and a few other soldiers attacked the enemy soldiers, using all of the ammunition for his rifle and pistol. He killed six enemy soldiers and captured 10. He was wounded by a bursting shell and later lost his arm.

  1. Joe R. Hooper

Born: Aug. 8, 1938 in Piedmont

Conflict: Vietnam War

Branch: Army

Hooper, a squad leader, was attacking an enemy position on a riverbank when he was fired on with rockets, machine guns and automatic weapons. He rallied several soldiers and stormed the river, taking over a handful of bunkers. He moved injured soldiers to safety, was injured, denied medical aid and returned to his troops. He stormed three enemy bunkers, destroyed them with grenades and rifle fire and then shot two enemy soldiers who had wounded the chaplain. He then destroyed three buildings that housed enemy riflemen. He killed a North Vietnamese officer with his bayonet, and continued alone into a building, killing those inside. As his injuries worsened, he destroyed multiple bunkers, rescued a wounded soldier trapped in a trench and killed more soldiers. 

  1. James D. Howe

Born: Dec. 17, 1948 in Six Mile

Conflict: Vietnam War

Branch: Marine Corps

Howe and two other marines were in a defensive position on a beach when enemy soldiers launched a grenade attack against them. After the grenades exploded, Howe and the two others moved to another position to return fire. When a grenade landed near them, he shouted a warning and threw himself on the grenade, which saved their lives and killed him. 

  1. Ralph H. Johnson

Born: Jan. 11, 1949 in Charleston

Conflict: Vietnam War

Branch: Marine Corps

Johnson, who was a part of a 15-man patrol group, was attacked by a platoon of enemy soldiers. When a grenade landed in the three-man fighting hole he was in with two other marines, he shouted a warning and hurled himself on the grenade. He was killed instantly and saved the lives of his two comrades.

  1. John T. Kennedy

Born: July 22, 1885 in Hendersonville

Conflict: Philippine Insurrection

Branch: Army

Kennedy and other soldiers entered a cave of enemy soldiers, which led to him being severely wounded. 

  1. Robert S. Kennemore

Born: June 21, 1920 in Greenville

Conflict: Korean War

Branch: Marine Corps

After his company’s defensive perimeter was overrun and his platoon leader was wounded, Kennemore “unhesitatingly assumed command, quickly reorganized the unit and directed the men in consolidating the position.” When a grenade landed in the middle of his squat, he put his foot on it and took the full force of the explosion, saving other marines.

  1. Noah O. Knight

Born: Oct. 29, 1929 in Chesterfield County

Conflict: Korean War

Branch: Army

Knight was in a defensive perimeter when his bunker was demolished and he was wounded. He moved to a better vantage point, and then moved through heavy fire and attacked the enemies, killing multiple people and temporarily stopping the attack. During another attack from enemy soldiers, he counterattacked, killing or wounding the entire group. He used the last of his ammo, rushed forward and used the butt of his rifle to incontacipate two enemy soldiers. A demolition charge killed three more enemy soldiers and mortally wounded Knight.

  1. George L. Mabry Jr.

Born: Sept. 14, 1917 in Sumter

Conflict: World War II

Branch: Army

Mabry was commanding a battalion in Germany when they encountered a minefield. Mabry advanced alone into the minefield, establishing a safe path for his battalion. He led the attack until he came across the booby-trapped obstacle, and then used scouts to disconnect the explosives. He then saw three enemies in foxholes, who he captured at bayonet point. He rushed a bunker, used the butt of his rifle to incapacitate one soldier and then bayoneted a second soldier. With his riflemen, he charged another bunker and “prodded six enemy at bayonet point.” He then led the battalion across 300 yards of terrain under fire to an elevated, defensive position. 

  1. William A. McWhorter

Born: Dec. 7, 1918 in Liberty

Conflict: World War II

Branch: Army

McWhorter, who was a machine gunner, was defending his position when he was attacked. He killed several members of a demolition squad, and one threw a fused demolition charge in his entrenchment. McWhorter picked up the grenade and “deliberately held it close to his body, bending over and turning away from his companion.” He was killed instantly, and his assistant was unharmed. 

  1. William A. Moffett

Born: Oct. 31, 1869 in Charleston

Conflict: Mexican Campaign (Vera Cruz)

Branch: Navy

On April 21, 1914, Moffett took his ship into a harbor without the help of a pilot or navigational lights. In the morning, he used his guns “at a critical time with telling effect.”

  1. Robert A. Owens

Born: Sept. 13, 1920 in Greenville

Conflict: World War II

Branch: Marine Corps

On Nov. 1 1943, Owens went through the range of well-camouflaged Japanese guns and units. Owens “unhesitatingly determined to charge the gun bunker from the front and, calling on four of his comrades to assist him, carefully placed them to cover the fire of the two adjacent hostile bunkers.” He then charged at a cannon and entered the emplacement, drove the gun crew out and “insuring their destruction before he himself was wounded.”

  1. Thomas P. Payne

Born: April 2, 1984 in unspecified South Carolina municipality

Conflict: War on Terrorism (Iraq)

Branch: Army

On Oct. 22, 2015, Payne led an assault team into one of two buildings that contained hostages. He freed 38 people, left his secure position, exposed himself to enemy fire and entered the other building. He climbed a ladder to the roof, which was partially on fire, to attack the enemy soldiers. He moved to the ground level and rushed into the burning building to save the hostages. He was shot at while cutting the locks where the hostages were being held, which encouraged other assault team members to help. He left to catch his breath, and then made the final cut to free the 37 hostages. 

  1. Furman L. Smith

Born: May 11, 1925 in Six Mile

Conflict: World War II

Branch: Army

Smith’s infantry unit was attacked by a group of 80 German soldiers. With the squad leader and one man seriously wounded, Smith refused to leave them, placed them in a shelter of shell craters and then led a counterattack on his own. He killed and wounded enemy soldiers and “against overwhelming odds, he stood his ground until shot down and killed, rifle in hand.”

  1. Freddie Stowers

Born: 1896 in Sandy Springs

Conflict: World War I

Branch: Army

On Sept. 28, 1918, Stowers, a squad leader, was the lead company during the attack on Hill 188 in the Champagne Marne sector of France. A few minutes into the attack, enemy soldiers began climbing onto the trench parapets and held their arms up as if they were surrendering. When Stowers’s company was within 100 meters of the trench line, the enemy soldiers jumped back into their trenches and shot at them with machine-gun fire and mortars. More than 50% of Stowers’s company was killed. Stowers then crawled toward the machine-gun nest, destroyed it with his squad and killed enemy soldiers. While continuing toward the second trench line, he was mortally wounded by machine-gun fire, but continued, urging on his squad, until he died.

  1. Daniel A. Sullivan

Born: July 31, 1884 in Charleston

Conflict: World War I

Branch: Naval Reserve Force

Sullivan was an officer of the U.S.S. Christabel when it battled with a submarine on May 21, 1918. A depth bomb exploded near the submarine, and the Christabel was so badly shaken that depth charges were thrown across the deck and in danger of exploding. Sullivan fell on the charges and secured them, preventing the ship from being destroyed. He survived the encounter. 

  1. Michael E. Thornton

Born: March 23, 1959 in Greenville

Conflict: Vietnam War

Branch: Navy

Thornton was with a three-man Vietnamese Navy SEAL patrol on a mission against a naval base when the group came under heavy fire from a larger enemy group. The patrol called for naval gunfire support and then exchanged shots with the enemies. After hearing that the senior adviser was believed to be dead, Thornton went through the gunfire to where the lieutenant was last seen, killed two enemy soldiers and then removed the wounded and unconscious officer. He inflated the lieutenant’s lifejacket and towed him seaward for two hours until they could be rescued. 

  1. Donald L. Truesdell

Born: Aug. 8, 1906 in Lugoff

Conflict: Second Nicaraguan Campaign

Branch: Marine Corps

Truesdale was second in command of a patrol in northern Nicaragua searching for a bandit group when a rifle grenade fell from its carrier, hit a rock and ignited. Truesdale, who was several yards away, rushed the grenade and attempted to throw it away. The grenade exploded in his hand, blowing it off. His patrol squad was not seriously injured.

  1. John C. Villepigue

Born: March 29, 1896 in Camden

Conflict: World War I

Branch: Army

Villepigue was with two other soldiers scouting a village when he encountered machine-gun fire, which killed one of his men and wounded the other. He advanced alone and killed four enemy soldiers with a hand grenade. He then rushed a machine-gun nest, killing four people and capturing another six. His platoon rejoined him, and he was then injured in the arm. 

  1. Lewis G. Watkins

Born: June 6, 1925 in Seneca

Conflict: Korean War

Branch: Marine Corps

On Oct. 7, 1952, Watkins, the guide for a rifle platoon, was trying to retake an outpost. He was injured when the enemy force atop a hill shot at them. Taking a rifle from one of the wounded men, Watkins pinned down a machine gun. A grenade landed near the marines, and Watkins pushed the soldiers aside, shielded them and then tried to throw the grenade outside the trench. He was mortally wounded when the grenade exploded in his hand. 

  1. George H. Wheeler

Born: Sept. 26, 1881 in Charleston

Conflict: Interim 1899-1910

Branch: Navy

Not many details were listed for Wheeler, except that he received the award “For bravery and extraordinary heroism displayed by him during a conflagration in Coquimbo, Chile, 20 January 1909.”

  1. Charles Q. Williams

Born: Sept. 17, 1933 in Charleston

Conflict: Vietnam War

Branch: Army

Williams was the executive officer of a special forces detachment when a Viet Cong regiment hit his camp and attempted to overrun it. Williams woke up personnel, organized them and led troops to defensive positions. Throughout the night, he had to travel to other compounds to find operational communications unit. He was injured, ran through gunfire, led defenses and rallied troops. He later directed the defense from the district building and used flares as reference points for air strikes. He then took a 3.5 rocket launcher, loaded it and aimed it at a machine gun. He hit it and was wounded again while trying to return. He pulled an injured soldier to a covered position, went for help and continued to direct air strikes. Once he learned that helicopters would try to land, he led the evacuation of the area. 

  1. James E. Williams

Born: June 13, 1930 in Rock Hill

Conflict: Vietnam War

Branch: Navy

Williams was a boat captain on River Patrol Boat 105 when he was on patrol with another boat and was attacked by two enemy sampans. Williams ordered his boat to fire, killing one enemy boat’s crew and causing the other to retreat in a river inlet. Enemy soldiers fired from close range along the river bank. Facing more enemy soldiers, Williams “exposed himself to the withering hail of enemy fire to direct counterfire and inspire the actions of his patrol.” While waiting for helicopters to arrive, more enemy boats arrived. Williams led his patrol through enemy fire and either damaged or destroyed 50 sampans and seven junks. As the helicopters arrived and it became “virtually dark,” he ordered for the boats’ search lights to turn on so they could move close to the shore to continue their attack. At the end of the three-hour battle, 65 enemy boats had been destroyed or lost and “numerous” enemies killed.

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