Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Garlin Murl Conner, WWII Hero, receives Medal of Honor

Army Lt. Col. Lloyd Ramsey wrote home in 1945 to tell his father to make no mistake about the unassuming little guy with the country twang from Kentucky who might be calling. "He's a real soldier," Ramsey said of Garlin Murl Conner, one of his lieutenants in the 3rd Infantry Division. "He probably will call you and, if he does, he may not sound like a soldier, will sound like any good old country boy, but to my way of seeing, he's one of the outstanding soldiers of this war, if not the outstanding," Ramsey said.

Conner, a native of what was then called Aaron, Kentucky, had been on the front lines from 1942-1945 as the 3rd ID went from Africa to Sicily and Italy, then to France and on across the Rhine. He sustained seven combat wounds and was credited with three Purple Hearts, according to Army accounts. He earned four Silver Stars, a Bronze Star, the French Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). Conner is believed to be the second most-decorated soldier of World War II after Audie Murphy, another 3rd ID soldier who would become a Hollywood cowboy star, although Conner did not receive the Medal of Honor.

Today, 73 years after his "above and beyond" actions against attacking German tanks on Jan. 24, 1945, in a snow-covered French forest, President Donald Trump will formally make the posthumous presentation of the Medal of Honor to Conner, who died at age 79 in 1998. Eighty-nine-year-old Pauline Lyda Wells Conner, or "Miss Pauline" as she is known in the Kentucky hill country, will accept the award for her late husband.

In the letter to his father, the late Ramsey, who retired as a Major General, said that Conner's DSC was awarded in haste in the effort to get him out of the fight and on his way home. "He has the DSC, which could have been, I believe, a Congressional Medal of Honor, but he was heading home and we wanted to get him what he deserved before he left," Ramsey wrote in the letter which became part of the record in the court battle to upgrade the DSC. Note: The medal is presented by the President "in the name of Congress" but the official title is "Medal of Honor."

"He was a humble man and he was my hero," Pauline Conner said Monday at a briefing with a military historian and Army Maj. Gen. Leopoldo Quintas, commander of the "Dog Faced Soldiers" of the 3rd ID. Conner loved his farm life in Albany, Kentucky, where they raised cattle, corn and tobacco, she said. "He loved his family, he didn't talk about what he did," she said, but the war never left him.

He kept his experiences through 28 months of combat, 10 campaigns and four amphibious landings to himself, she said, but then there were the recurring nightmares. "I'd wake him up. He wouldn't say anything. He'd just go out on the porch, sit there and smoke, hours at a time," she said.

Calling In 'Danger Close' On the Germans

"He fought to get into the fight," Quintas said of Conner's actions on Jan. 24, 1945. He had been recuperating from being shot in the hip. The bullet "went through his thigh and came out the hip joint," Pauline Conner said. The injury would bother him for the rest of his life but Conner was anxious to get back to his unit. He was like that, Pauline Conner said. She said he had previously been shot in the jaw, knocking out a tooth. "I've still got the tooth at home," she said.

Conner ignored the doctors in the field hospital and somehow got back to Company K, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. Ramsey had made him the S-2 Intelligence officer to keep him back at headquarters and possibly out of harm's way, but Conner volunteered for yet another dangerous mission. Conner wasn't even supposed to be in the battle because of his hip wound, said Dr. Erik Villard, of the Center for Military History. "You just have to realize the level of heroism he displayed. It is remarkable," he said.

The 3rd ID had been moving south and east in the effort to get to the Rhine as part of Operation Grand Slam. German Panzer units backed by about 600 infantry moved against the Americans, seeking to split their forces. The German forces included several of their top of the line Mark VI "Tiger" tanks, Villard said. The U.S. troops were in a forest near the French town of Houssen. Conner, with his ever-present Thompson submachine gun, ran into the clear ahead of the 3rd ID's positions, unspooling telephone wire as he went. He dropped into a shallow irrigation ditch. Now he was a "spotter" for Lt. Col. Ramsey and the howitzers of the 10th Field Artillery Battalion, Villard said.

"He basically called in artillery on himself," Villard said, and devastated the German advance. For three hours, he remained in the ditch directing artillery fire despite the enemy closing to within five yards of his positions, his medal citation said. He was credited with "disintegrating the powerful enemy assault force and preventing heavy loss of life in his own outfit."

Another Conner Battle, This Time With the Army And a Federal Court

From time to time after the war, Ramsey would visit with Murl and Pauline. She said Ramsey would occasionally ask about pressing to upgrade the DSC. Pauline said her husband wouldn't hear of it. He didn't want to appear to be "bragging" on himself. He had four brothers who served in World War II and a fifth who served in Korea. He didn't want to appear to be putting himself above others who served.

That changed when Richard Chilton, a former Army Green Beret, came to the red-brick Conner home in Albany, Kentucky. Chilton was looking for information on his uncle, who had served with Conner and was killed in the amphibious assault on the Italian town of Anzio. It was at Anzio that Conner received a battlefield commission, from Tech Sergeant to Lieutenant. Conner was frail at the time, confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. He pointed Chilton to a closet, where an old Army duffel bag contained a cardboard box with his medals and military records.

Pauline said she had never seen it before. Chilton was astonished at Conner's military record and began a campaign to upgrade the DSC to the Medal of Honor. In 1997, the Army's Board for Correction of Military Records rejected an application for an upgrade and rejected an appeal in 2000. Luther Conner and others began assisting in the case. The staff for Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Kentucky, found three letters in the National Archives from Conner's buddies in the 3rd ID, confirming Conner's actions on Jan. 24, 1945.

In 2014, the case went before a federal district court in Kentucky which ruled that the statute of limitations had run out on an upgrade for the DSC. The case went back to the Army's Board for Corrections of Military Records, which said that the three letters found in the Archives constituted new evidence "sufficient to warrant a recommendation." "I just can't say enough about Rich Chilton," Luther Conner said. "There's just no doubt that he [Murl] deserved it." "I have truly been appreciative of all the help people have given me," Pauline Conner said. "I'm so thankful I can get to see this in my lifetime."

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