Medal of Honor comes full circle
DULUTH -- Seventy-four years ago this week, a Western Union telegram delivery to Duluth heralded the grim news that Maj. Henry A. Courtney was killed in action on the Japanese island Okinawa in World War II.
Courtney’s father and fellow attorney, Henry Sr., had already anticipated the two working side by side and outfitted the family law firm’s stationery with his son’s name.
His mother, Florence, grieved and swelled with anger, wondering why and how a man of her son’s stature — the second in command of the second battalion of the 22nd Marine Regiment — could have come to that fate.
In time, his remains were returned to rest in Calvary Cemetery in Duluth and the family came to learn of their son’s heroism in death.
On Wednesday, the 74th anniversary of the telegram, Courtney’s Medal of Honor returned home to Duluth for long-term display at Veterans Memorial Hall inside the Depot in Duluth.
“It’s really an honor,” Courtney’s nephew Bob Storey said. “I remember growing up with the medal on display in our living room.”
Storey and other relatives, all from the Twin Cities area, wore sterile blue gloves as they transferred the Medal of Honor, tarnished by age, from its case onto a black velvet neck bust.
The medal is on loan from the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge (Pa.), which had been entrusted the medal by a Courtney sister for safe-keeping since 1980.
For almost five years, the St. Louis County Historical Society, along with the Courtney family and the local community of veterans, had sought the medal for display in Duluth. At first, the Freedoms Foundation declined their requests. But it thawed this year after public pressure on social media following a Star Tribune column critical of the institution and its seeming unwillingness to come to an arrangement.
“Today, Maj. Courtney’s Medal of Honor comes home to Duluth, where, quite appropriately, it will be surrounded by his family, friends and hometown admirers,” the Freedoms Foundation wrote in a letter presented at the installation.
The ceremony drew sunlight through the tall windows of the Great Hall and 50 people, many graying and several wearing the polished shoes of military personnel.
“It’s here!” nephew Court Storey proclaimed, crediting persistence and determination for the arrival of the medal.
Nancy Sampair, a niece, talked to the News Tribune about her uncle’s death — and how he likely would have kept the Duluth branch of the family going had he survived the war.
“I’m confident he would have,” she said. “He went to Duluth East and was a big football player. He loved Duluth.”
His nieces and nephews all grew up hearing about their uncle — how he returned to war after a bout of malaria rather than take a stateside job training Marines, and how he took shrapnel in his leg about a week before he led men into the battle that claimed his life.
“He was selfless,” Sampair said, adding that her uncle’s character and heart have been revealed by others in her family, including her brother Court Storey, who’d volunteered to go to Vietnam.
“It always seemed like a logical solution to bring the medal to Duluth,” Bob Storey said following the ceremony, which included a rich history researched and recited by Alan Anderson.
Anderson is an attorney from Shoreview, Minn. with a doctoral degree in war studies. He uncovered the history that connected the day’s events with the grim news from 74 years ago.
“He could have stayed safe,” Anderson said of Courtney, describing him as driven to shepherd young men into war rather than have them experience it without a savvy leader around them.
On the day he died, Courtney used the phrase, “All right men, follow me,” in leading a surprise attack on Sugar Loaf Hill during the Battle of Okinawa. The maneuver was credited with preempting an even bloodier battle than the one that ensued. During the fighting, Courtney was killed instantly by a mortar blast.
Throughout the ceremony, Courtney was remembered as a spiritual man, who made friends easily and was forever considerate of others.
Said Father John Petrich of Duluth, “There are people like us who step out in faith and do courageous things.”