We know that America would be a very different place were it not for some great men – those who have been our presidents, for example. Where would we be without Washington, or Lincoln or Jefferson? America would also be a very different place were it not for those who wear the Medal of Honor.
Not only were these men, and one woman, among the greatest blood donors to our freedom, they came home and enhanced the bounty and the beauty of America – our arts, medicine, politics, aviation, even sports. Examples are many, but here are a few you will find in the NMOHM in Arlington.
Theodore Roosevelt, for example, was a president and a Medal of Honor recipient who changed the face of America forever. Without him we would not have our National Park system and the beautiful parks it encompasses. He lost his wife and mother on the same day and sought solace in nature. He was inspired by the comfort it brought him and preserved some of the most beautiful landscape in America for the comfort of all of us forever. Roosevelt established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks and 18 national monuments on more than 230 million acres of public land.
Equally important to their many measurable contributions was the recipients’ immeasurable contributions to morale, and inspiration. No one epitomized these dual bequests more than Jimmy Doolittle, an aviation and inspirational marvel – also a MOH recipient.
Early in WWII, after Japan’s devastating attack on Pear Harbor, morale in America was low. We were ill prepared for war and vulnerable to future attacks. Japan was a powerful, confident adversary who had driven us out of the Philippines, killing thousands in the Bataan Death March and incarcerating thousands more in unbearable conditions. As I said, our morale was low, theirs high. Doolittle changed that.
Despite what many thought was mission impossible, Doolittle modified 16 B-25s and launched them from an aircraft carrier to fly over and bomb Tokyo. Doolittle’s Raid had a devastating psychological effect on Japanese morale, as well as giving an incredible morale boost to all Americans. The survival of many Doolittle Raiders was in part the result of Doolittle’s earlier contributions to aviation, an ability to fly on instruments in weather.
As any pilot knows, without a horizon his human senses are useless. Commercial aviation was severely limited by weather. Doolittle changed that. Thirteen years before the Raid, Doolittle helped develop an artificial horizon and became the first aviator to take off and land using instruments alone. Doolittle opened the skies and made all weather aviation operations possible.
The first Medal of Honor recipient I met was Joe Foss. It was the day after I received the medal, and I went to the convention of the Medal of Honor Society in Houston Texas. Joe Foss met me at the door. He was twice the governor of South Dakota, and I was born there. His contributions to America are monumental: as a politician, the first president of the American Football League, a television star, the president of the National Rifle Association, not to mention 26 aerial victories in World War II. As an aside, he was inspired to become an aviator after seeing a demonstration by Charles Lindberg, also a MOH recipient.
But one incident in his life may best illustrate the importance of this museum. He was once detained by airport security, who confiscated his star-shaped Medal of Honor and set about to destroy it. They believed it to be some kind of Ninja weapon. (As an aside, I had the same thing happen to me.) The country was outraged. Joe’s comments highlight one need for our museum: “I wasn’t upset for me … I was upset for the Medal of Honor, that they just didn’t know what it even was. It represents all of the guys who lost their lives – the guys who never came back. Everyone who put their lives on the line for their country. You’re supposed to know what the Medal of Honor is.”
The National Medal of Honor Museum will educate our people on the MOH, but, more important, it will be a vault for the values embedded in the medal and a sanctuary for the inspiration that will drive our people to live those values. It will change America.