Below, Historian Stephen Ochs, author of A Cause Greater Than Self: The Journey of Captain Michael J. Daly, World War II Medal of Honor Recipient, reflects on the medal's sequicentennial, the "greatest generation," and Michael J. Daly, the privileged, hell-raising youth turned war hero and Medal of Honor recipient who is the subject of his forthcoming book.
World War II, the so-called “good war,” continues to fascinate the public even as the “greatest generation” fades from the scene before our very eyes. Certainly, the torrent of books, articles, films, museum exhibits, conferences, and oral history projects over the last 25 years has added immensely to our understanding of America’s armed forces during that titanic struggle.
The Army History and Education Center proudly proclaims as its goal, “Telling the Army’s Story . . . One Soldier at a Time.” A Cause Greater Than Self attempts to do just that by recounting the story of Medal of Honor recipient Michael J. Daly, one of the bravest of the so-called “greatest generation.”
In doing so, it attempts to explore in the case of one man the questions that many of us have about the members of that storied fraternity who have received the Medal of Honor – those men and one woman whose actions seem to define bravery: What factors shaped them? What motivated them? What was the nature of their courage? What happened to them after their feats of heroism? What, if anything, did they share in common? What do their stories teach us?
The book also uses the prism of Daly’s experiences on the platoon and company level, where battles were fought and won, to highlight key aspects of the war in Western Europe, especially the challenges faced by American troops not only in the well-known battles such as Omaha Beach, but also lesser known and often ignored campaigns in the Colmar Pocket in Eastern France and in central and southern Germany. In the closing months of the war, a defeated yet still dogged and resourceful foe tried to exact as much Allied blood as possible. Men such as Daly helped make possible the final destruction of the Third Reich.
The Medal of Honor that Daly received from Truman’s hands on a rainy summer day over 60 years ago originated in an act of Congress passed on July 12, 1862, during the Civil War. This year thus marks the sesquicentennial of the Army Medal of Honor. (A Navy Medal of Honor had been established in 1861.)
Because the medal was bestowed in the name of Congress, it has often been referred to as the “Congressional Medal of Honor,” but its correct name is the Medal of Honor. On July 9, 1918, Congress amended the law in order to clarify the criteria for the honor. It stipulated that the President or his designated representative bestow the Medal in the name of Congress upon a member of the Army – enlisted or officer -- who distinguished himself conspicuously “by gallantry and intrepidity” in battle with an enemy “at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
Indeed, a member of the Army could not receive the Medal of Honor for simply acting under orders, no matter how bravely he executed them. The deed also had to be such that had the soldier not performed it, he could not later have been justifiably criticized for failing to act. To distinguish between “gallantry above and beyond the call of duty,” and estimable, but lesser forms of bravery, Congress also established a new “pyramid of Honor” providing for The Distinguished Service Cross, The Distinguished Service Medal, and The Silver Star. Congress authorized their presentation by the President, but not in the name of Congress.
The Army established rules and procedures for determining whether a soldier should receive the Medal of Honor. One of them required two eyewitnesses of the deed; another that a recommendation for the Medal had to be made within two years of the date of the deed, and a third, that the award of the Medal had to be conferred within three years of the deed. Normally, a man was nominated by his immediate commander, and then the nomination proceeded for review up through the service man’s chain of command. The review process included a Decorations Board that could recommend the Medal of Honor, a lesser decoration, or no award at all. The Army Chief of Staff, the Secretary of the Army, the Secretary of War, and finally the President all had to sign off on the award.
During World War II, out of approximately 14 million who served in the armed forces of the United States, 464 men received the Medal of Honor, over half of them posthumously.
The recipients of the Medal of Honor constitute one of the most illustrious fraternities of warriors in the world. Michael J. Daly belonged to that select and very diverse company. Bur Daly’s heroics at Nuremburg were not a flash-in-the-pan occurrence. Rather, they were the culmination of eleven months of consistently brave actions in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). During that time, Daly, who had entered the Army as an eighteen year-old enlisted man, earned an officer’s commission and advanced to the rank of captain commanding an infantry company. Prior to receiving the Medal of Honor and his second Purple Heart, he had received three Silver Stars for gallantry in combat, and a Bronze Star with an attached combat V device for valor. All of this happened within two years of his being dismissed from Portsmouth Priory School in 1942, and from the United States Military Academy in 1943.
This last aspect is one that my students find very appealing about the story. [Every year, as part of our unit on World War II, they do a case study of Michael Daly.] Mike Daly struggled with discipline while at Georgetown Prep, Portsmouth Abbey, and the United States Military Academy. As a teen, he “messed-up a lot.” Yet, in the cauldron of war, he found a cause greater than himself. He became a “rescuer,” a man “for others,” who repeatedly and selflessly risked his own life so that his men might live.
Stephen J. Ochs is an instructor in the history department at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Maryland, where he holds the Lawler Chair of History and has taught since 1977. He is the author of two previous books.