A look at Tennessee's Medal of Honor recipients and their stories

Grand opening set for Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center

Medal of Honor awards are displayed during the third annual Celebration of Valor luncheon at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. / Staff file photo

On multiple occasions, while awarding the Medal of Honor, President Harry S. Truman remarked, "I would rather have the blue band of the Medal of Honor around my neck than to be president of the United States." But when Congress attempted to award the badge to him in 1971, he wrote to the House that he did " ... not consider that I have done anything which should be the reason of any award, Congressional or otherwise."

Truman continued, saying the medal was for combat bravery, and awarding it to him would detract from that significance.

"This does not mean I do not appreciate what you and others have done, because I do appreciate the kind things that have been said and the proposal to have the award offered to me," Truman wrote. "Therefore, I close by saying thanks, but I will not accept a Congressional Medal of Honor."

The state of Tennessee boasts 32 of the medal's 3,525 honorees thus far, including a Signal Mountain native for whom the new Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center is named.

Later this month, the Heritage Center will open downtown with 14 permanent exhibits detailing the heroism and actions that earned the featured soldiers the nation's highest military honor, with a special focus on those accredited to Tennessee. The center will also feature a rotating exhibit that will change every 90 days.

Chattanooga is the birthplace of the Medal of Honor, notes Keith A. Hardison, the Heritage Center's executive director. The Heritage Center being located in Chattanooga pays homage to the Great Locomotive Chase, aka Andrews' Raid, when a band of Union soldiers stole The General locomotive and rode it up toward Chattanooga from Atlanta, destroying track and bridges as they went. Six of the raiders were among the first class of Medal of Honor recipients, including the first honoree, Jacob Parrott.

Grand opening of Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center

When: 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 22; opens for self-guided tours at 1 p.m. and tickets are required, www.mohhc.org/tickets.Where: 2 W. Aquarium Way, Suite 104Admission: Free to the grand opening; tours $9.95-$13.95.What: 19,000-square-foot museum featuring 14 permanent displays, life-size dioramas and interactive exhibitsRegular hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 1-6 p.m.Contact: mohhc.org or 423-877-2525Good to know: Those attending the grand opening are advised to arrive early to see the Medal of Honor procession before the event begins at 10 a.m. (Heritage Center members receive priority seating.) Organizers expect a large turnout during the opening weekend, so tour tickets should be reserved in advance. Tours begin at 1 p.m. that day.

Fifty-two medals have been awarded for acts of valor that occurred in and around Chattanooga, including one to Mary Edwards Walker, the only female recipient.

"The Medal of Honor is a Chattanooga story," Hardison says.

Throughout the center, interviews with various honorees will play on rotation. Scholars have analyzed these interviews and found that honorees share six characteristics: patriotism, integrity, courage, citizenship, sacrifice and commitment. These characteristics drive the center's layout, says Hardison, with exhibits detailing each.

For example, the center displays a miniature Hacksaw Ridge with Desmond Doss descending in a scene from his heroic rescue of 75 wounded soldiers; a reimagined French forest where Charles Coolidge and a band of new recruits fought off Germans who far outmatched them; and a model of paratrooper Paul B. Huff jumping down from the sky on a reconnaissance mission during which he singlehandedly wiped out several German nests.

Additional Tennessee honorees include an African American slave turned Buffalo Soldier, a Navy corpsman who returned eight live grenades while caring for his patient, and a Cleveland, Tennessee, native who destroyed a German machine gun nest. Here are their stories - some of those lesser-known, but no less valiant.

Did you know?

The Army, Navy and Air Force each has its own version of the medal. A Kingston, Tennessee, native who entered service in Chattanooga designed the Army's. To this day, it's referred to as the Gillespie Medal.

George Jordan of Williamson County, Tennessee

Sergeant, Company K, 9th Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers), U.S. Army

Awarded for actions at Fort Tularosa, New Mexico, on May 14, 1880, and at Carrizo Canyon, New Mexico, in 1881 (Indian Wars)

Born into slavery in 1847, George Jordan enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 19 on Christmas Day in Nashville as an illiterate, free man. He ended up in the hands of the 9th Cavalry Regiment, better known as the Buffalo Soldiers, the first regiment consisting of African American soldiers.

As he rose through the ranks, Jordan learned to read and write, which contributed to his rank of sergeant, some sources say.

On May 14, 1880, at Fort Tularosa, Jordan led 25 men against 100 Apache fighters. His journal entry for that night reads, " On the evening of the 14th, while I was standing outside the fort conversing with one of the citizens, the Indians came upon us unexpectedly and attacked."

Though greatly outnumbered, not a single Buffalo Soldier died.

Jordan's second medal was awarded in 1881 for his leadership during the Battle of Carrizo Canyon. The Apache had the advantage of fighting from above the Buffalo Soldiers, who were on the ground. Jordan was credited with leading his troops to hold their position and force the Apache out.

At 49, he retired to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, where, eight years later, in poor health due to kidney disease, he went to a local Army hospital. He was denied entry and died soon after. A post chaplain cited that Jordan "died for the want of proper attention."

This incident led the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to create a policy to not refuse any servicemember care for any reason.

Jordan is buried in the Fort Robinson cemetery, where he received service with full military honors upon his death.

Sources: Black Past, Medal of Honor Convention, National Park Service

photo George Gillespie Jr. / Photo provided by Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center

George Gillespie Jr. of Kingston, Tennessee

First lieutenant, Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army

Awarded for actions near Bethesda Church, Virginia, on May 31, 1864 (Civil War)

After graduating second in his 1862 West Point class, George Gillespie Jr. entered the service in Chattanooga during the Civil War. A Southerner fighting for the Union Army, he commanded two companies of the engineers' battalion in Virginia.

In 1864, while crossing enemy lines to relay a message to Union Gen. Philip Sheridan, Gillespie was captured. He escaped and chose to continue his mission. He was captured again, this time escaping under enemy fire, according to his citation.

Gillespie was later named Sheridan's Chief Engineer in the Army of the Shenandoah and the Military Division of the Gulf.

Following the war, Gillespie supervised major Army projects which included work at harbors and ports in Chicago, Boston and New York City, and built the stunning Tillamook Rock Lighthouse off the Oregon coast in 1880.

During the Spanish-American War, he was promoted to brigadier general of Volunteers in 1898 and commanded the Army's Department of the East.

In 1901, Gillespie became the Army's Chief of Engineers and was the acting U.S. Secretary of War under President William McKinley. As part of his duties, Gillespie coordinated the president's funeral when he was assassinated that same year.

Gillespie continued to move up. As Assistant Chief of Staff of the Army, in 1904, he redesigned the Medal of Honor, replacing the scene "Minerva Repelling Discord" with a portrait of the goddess in a war helm, which it still bears today.

Sources: Medal of Honor Convention, Battlefields.org

John Harlan Willis of Columbia, Tennessee

Pharmacist's mate first class, Marines, U.S. Navy

Awarded for actions at Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, on Feb. 28, 1945 (World War II)

John Harlan Willis returned eight live grenades toward Japanese enemy fire - all while aiding a wounded Marine lying in a shell hole during a battle for Hill 362A on Feb. 28, 1945.

Wounded himself, Willis had been ordered by his commanding officers to return to the battle-aid station for medical attention, but, spotting the wounded soldier, he instead ran to his aid. Willis continued to administer blood plasma to his patient under heavy mortar and sniper fire, throwing back the grenades as they came into the shell hole.

The ninth grenade would explode in his hand, killing him instantly.

Willis had enlisted in the U.S. Navy as an apprentice seaman following his high school graduation in November 1940, before the U.S. entered World War II. He rose through the ranks and became a pharmacist's mate first class in July 1943. He and his battalion were deployed to Japan in December 1944.

He was killed in action at age 23.

In his honor, Willis' widow was named the sponsor of the destroyer escort USS John Willis (DE-1027). Also bearing his name was a former Naval Hospital in Millington, Tennessee, named Willis Hall, which is now part of the University of Memphis' Millington Center.

In addition to the Medal of Honor, Willis was posthumously honored with a Purple Heart Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal for his actions at Iwo Jima.

Sources: Honorstates.org, Marine Corps University, Medal of Honor Convention

photo David Robert Ray / Photo provided by Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center

David Robert Ray of McMinnville, Tennessee

Hospital corpsman second class, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines, 1st Marine Division (Rein), FMF, U.S. Navy

Awarded for actions at Quang Nam Province, Republic of Vietnam, on March 19, 1969 (Vietnam War)

Born and raised in McMinnville, historical descriptions peg David Robert Ray as a lanky, kindhearted man with a Southern drawl. He attended the University of Tennessee at Knoxville on scholarship for three years, up until 1966 when he stepped up to enlist in the Navy during the Vietnam War.

Three years later, during the early hours of March 19, a surprise enemy battalion broke through his unit's barbed-wire perimeter of the Liberty Bridge, a strategic supply artery across the Thu Bon River connecting An Hoa to Da Nang. Heavy enemy fire from mortar, rockets, flamethrowers, grenades and small arms came through the Marines' position at Phu Loc Six.

Ray, then a petty officer, jumped between low-hanging parapets to aid wounded soldiers.

While treating another Marine, Ray fought off two attackers by hand, killing one and wounding the other. He then continued forward through enemy fire, sustaining fatal wounds and running out of ammunition.

Still thinking of his wounded comrade, Ray threw himself atop him when a nearby grenade exploded, saving the other man's life. Ray was 24.

For his selflessness, in addition to the Medal of Honor, Ray received the Purple Heart Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Presidential Unit Citation, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation and Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.

His name lives on through the USS David R. Ray, part of a reserve fleet in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard; McMinnville's Bobby Ray Memorial Elementary School; and a highway in Warren County. He is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in McMinnville.

Sources: Marine Corps University, Medal of Honor Convention, Naval History and Heritage Command

Mitchell Stout of Knoxville, Tennessee

Sergeant, Battery C, 1st Battalion, 44th Artillery, U.S. Army,

Awarded for actions at Khe Gio Bridge, Republic of Vietnam, on March 12, 1970 (Vietnam War)

At age 17, Mitchell Stout dropped out of Lenoir City High School in North Carolina and enlisted in the Army. He successfully completed paratrooper school and received his wings before the Army discharged him after discovering his real age.

At that point, he had already turned 18, and he re-enlisted.

After basic training, Stout served a year in Germany and requested a tour in Vietnam. Wounded by shrapnel during a mortar round in 1969, he was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star at 19.

At 20, Stout volunteered for a second tour of Vietnam. While guarding a demilitarized zone in Quang Tri Province, 400 North Vietnamese troops attacked the camp. Stout, trapped in a bunker, directed his men's fire.

When a grenade landed at his feet, Stout took it and ran out of the bunker as it exploded, saving four other men.

He died on his mother's birthday, which she never again celebrated before her death in 2009.

Stout is the only Army air defense artilleryman to be awarded the Medal of Honor. An I-75 bridge over the Tennessee River in his native Loudon County is named after him, but his Medal of Honor is accredited to North Carolina where he enlisted.

Sources: East Tennessee Veterans Memorial Association, Medal of Honor Convention

photo Paul Bert Huff / Photo provided by Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center

Paul Bert Huff of Cleveland, Tennessee

Corporal, 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, U.S. Army

Awarded for actions near Carano, Italy, on Feb. 8, 1944 (World War II)

Stationed at Italy's Anzio beachhead with his platoon in February 1944, Cpl. Paul Bert Huff volunteered to lead a six-man patrol through open, rolling fields under enemy machine gunfire on a mission to find the location of enemy troops.

Facing heavy fire, Huff directed his patrol back to a creek as he advanced alone through a minefield. He crawled to the nearest machine gun 75 yards away, killed the crew with his submachine gun, and then destroyed the Germans' machine gun nest.

Returning to his patrol, Huff guided his six men back to safety and was able to share information about the enemy troops which the Allies then used to rout the rest of the German troops stationed there.

When he returned to report his mission complete, his commanding officer told him he'd been nominated for the medal for his actions. During World War II, Medal of Honor recipients were sent back to the United States to rally at-home morale and raise money for war bonds. There, Huff went on a 38-state tour with an Army aerial show, making two parachute jumps in each state.

In 1958, Huff served as command sergeant major of the famed 101st Airborne Division during his deployment in Vietnam.

Before Huff's death in 1994, his native Cleveland designated a major thoroughfare of I-75 as Paul B. Huff Parkway in his honor. He is buried in Hillcrest Memorial Gardens in Cleveland.

Sources: 509thgeronimo.org, East Tennessee Veterans Memorial Association, Medal of Honor Convention

photo Troy McGill / Photo provided by Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center

Troy McGill of Knoxville, Tennessee

Sergeant, Troop G, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, U.S. Army

Awarded for actions at Los Negros Islands, Admiralty Group, on March 4, 1944 (World War II)

In the quiet morning hours of March 4, 1944, a herd of 200 drunken enemy troops descended on Sgt. Troy McGill and his eight-man patrol. Surprised and outmatched, all but McGill and one other man were killed.

McGill, seeing an opportunity to save the other man, ordered him to return to the next bunker so he could find safety as he held his position.

McGill stood strong, shooting until his rifle ran out of ammunition. When the time came, he chose to charge out of his foxhole and take on the enemy in hand-to-hand combat, using his gun as a club.

By dawn, 105 enemy troops lay dead around McGill's position, where he, too, had died.

His body was returned to Knoxville, where he is buried in the Knoxville National Cemetery. He is the only Knoxville native to receive the medal during World War II. Gen. Douglas MacArthur personally awarded the Medal of Honor to McGill's family.

Today, a portion of I-40 through Knox, Sevier, Jefferson and Cocke counties is named the Troy A. McGill Memorial Highway. However, his medal is accredited to Oklahoma, where he enlisted in the Army.

Sources: Knoxville History Project, "Knoxville in World War II", Medal of Honor Convention

Medal of Honor recipients with ties to Tennessee

Civil WarGaines Lawson of Hawkins County, ArmyGeorge Lewis Gillespie Jr. of Kingston, Army Corps of EngineersOliver Hughes of Fentress County, Army (MOH accredited to Kentucky)John Ferrell of Bedford County, (MOH accredited to Illinois)Harrison Collins of Hawkins County, Tenn., ArmyDaniel Dickenson Stevens of Sagnange, Navy (MOH accredited to Massachusetts)Indian WarsGeorge Grant of Raleigh (Tenn.), Army (MOH accredited to Indiana)Benoni Strivson of Overton, Army (MOH accredited to California)John Kyle, born in Ohio, lived in Nashville, ArmyJames Bell Dozier of Warren County, Army (MOH accredited to Texas)Clay Beauford, enlisted near Nashville, ArmyWilliam W. Morris of Stewart County, Army (MOH accredited to Kentucky)George Jordan of Williamson County, ArmyWilliam Harding Carter of Nashville, Army (MOH accredited to New York)George Hobday of Pulaski County, ArmySpanish-American WarCharles O. Cantrell of Smithville, ArmyPhilippine-American WarAllen James Greer of Memphis, ArmyJosephus Samuel Cecil of New River, ArmyBolden Reush Harrison of Savannah (Tenn.), NavySeth Lathrop Weld, enlisted in Altamont, ArmyPeacetime RecipientRobert Earl Bonney of Maryville, NavyWorld War IJesse Whitfield Covington of Haywood, Navy (MOH accredited to California)Joseph B. Adkinson of Egypt (Tenn.), ArmyMilo Lemert, enlisted in Crossville, ArmyEdward R. Talley of Russellville, ArmyJames Ernest “Buck” Karnes of Knoxville, ArmyCalvin John Ward, of Greene County, ArmyAlvin C. York of Fentress County, ArmyWorld War IIAlexander “Sandy” Bonnyman Jr., lived in Knoxville, U.S. Marines (MOH accredited to New Mexico)Paul Bert Huff of Cleveland (Tenn.), ArmyTroy McGill of Knoxville, Army (MOH accredited to Oklahoma)Charles Henry Coolidge of Signal Mountain, ArmyVernon McGarity of Right (Tenn.), ArmyCharles L. McGaha of Cosby, ArmyRaymond Henry Cooley of Dunlap, ArmyJohn Harlan Willis of Columbia (Tenn.), NavyElbert Luther Kinser of Greeneville (Tenn.), MarinesKorean WarRay E. Duke of Whitwell, ArmyWilliam Franklin Lyell of Hickman County, ArmyCharles F. Pendleton of Camden (Tenn.), Army (MOH accredited to Texas)Vietnam WarJames Alton Gardner of Dyersburg, ArmyWalter Keith Singleton of Memphis, MarinesDon Jenkins, enlisted in Nashville, ArmyDavid Robert Ray of McMinnville, NavyMitchell Stout of Lenior City/Knoxville, Army (MOH accredited to North Carolina)