Before a new documentary series on World War II by Ken Burns even aired on PBS, there was controversy.  Mexican-American organizations complained that there was no episode that focused solely on their people.  Burns responded by adding a segment devoted to Mexican-Americans.  Nonetheless, the same groups complained that the additional material was not enough.  I could not help but think that Burns had not devoted an episode to Americans of Polish extraction, or Swedish, or Italian, or German, or Jewish, or any other specific ethnic group.  Moreover, I saw Mexican-Americans claiming that they have been awarded more Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group—and reporters accepting the claims as gospel.  I have refuted such claims on several occasions in the past, citing such sources as Medal of Honor Recipients, 1863-1978, prepared by the Senate’s Committee on Veteran’s Affairs.  I have absolutely no quarrel with a people feeling pride in their own, especially Medal of Honor recipients, the bravest of the brave, but when claims become wildly exaggerated and accepted as fact by the media, something must be said.

Since the Medal of Honor was first awarded in 1863, there have been some 3,400 recipients.  More than 500 of those have been Irish-Americans.  Mexican-Americans account for 39 awards.  Of the 728 recipients who were foreign-born, 257 were born in Ireland.  This only tells part of the story, though.  There were recipients born in England and in Canada who have distinctly Irish names.  John Donnelly may have been born in England, and Michael McCarthy, in Canada, but I’ll bet that Gaelic blood coursed through their veins.  Germany has the second-highest total of recipients with 134, followed by England (79), Canada (51), and Scotland (37).  Mexico has four.

Nineteen men have been awarded the MOH twice.  Nine were Irish: John Cooper (born Mather), Henry Hogan, John King, and John Lafferty were Irish-born, and Dan Daly, John Joseph Kelly, John McCloy, Patrick Mullen, and Robert Sweeney had Irish-born parents.  According to Marine Gen. Smedley Butler, the only other Marine to receive the MOH twice, Daly should have been awarded the MOH four times.  Daly is most famous for leading the charge at Belleau Wood, yelling, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”  With grenades and his Colt .45 sidearm, and in the face of withering fire, he single-handedly took out a squad of Germans at a machine-gun emplacement.  Although his actions had rallied the Marines and turned the tide of battle, and he was recommended for the MOH, top brass simply thought that no one should have three Medals of Honor, and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by the Army, the Navy Cross by the Marines, and the Croix de Guerre with Palm by the French.

During World War II, a dozen Mexican-Americans were awarded the MOH.  At the same time, 58 Irish-Americans received our nation’s highest decoration.  Kellys alone accounted for five of the awards.  Irish-American recipients included Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of the war; Edward “Butch” O’Hare, the first American ace of the war; Francis Flaherty, the hero of the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor; Charles “Commando” Kelly, famous for his seemingly impossible exploits at Salerno; David McCampbell, the Navy’s leading ace; Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, the Marine’s leading ace; Daniel J. Callaghan, the highest-ranking American naval officer to die in the war; Thomas McGuire, the Air Force’s second-leading ace; and Richard O’Kane, the Navy’s top submarine commander.

There was also Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Timothy O’Callahan.  A professor of mathematics at Holy Cross College before joining the Navy in 1940, he found himself on the carrier Franklin late in the war.  The ship was part of Task Force 58, which, during March 1945, was launching Hellcats and Corsairs in fighter sweeps of Kyu-shu and Honshu.  The Japanese retaliated in kind, hitting the carriers Enterprise, Intrepid, Wasp, and Yorktown on March 18.  The next day, it was Franklin’s turn.  Two 500-pound Japanese bombs hit the carrier and exploded.  Fuel, ammunition, and ordnance were ignited, and secondary explosions ripped the ship from stem to stern, killing hundreds of sailors and engulfing hundreds more in flames.

Below deck at the time and eating breakfast, O’Callahan donned a helmet and rushed above.  He found the flight deck littered with bodies.  Fires raged everywhere, and ammunition exploded.  Through the holocaust, O’Callahan ran to the wounded, carrying some to safety and administering first aid to those who could not be moved.  He manned a fire hose to spray ordnance that was about to explode on the flight deck.  He carried hot bombs and ammunition from burning magazines, which threatened to explode at any second.  His arms and hands were seared, but he went back, tempting death again and again.  Wounded by exploding ammunition, he carried on, leading men trapped below deck to safety.  He seemed to be everywhere.  Watching the courageous lieutenant commander emerge through walls of flame and explosions with a wounded sailor or ammunition time and time again, the ship’s captain exclaimed that he would put O’Callahan up for the Medal of Honor but doubted he would live to receive it.  Franklin’s commander later said O’Callahan was “the bravest man I ever saw.”

O’Callahan also, in the midst of explosions and breathing toxic, suffocating smoke, administered last rites to the dying—for O’Callahan was a Jesuit priest and one of the carrier’s two chaplains.  The Boston-born O’Callahan, with a cleft in his chin so deep a nickel could hide in it, lived to receive the Medal of Honor and was the only chaplain so decorated during the entire war.  A destroyer escort was named in his honor.  He attained the rank of captain before leaving the Naval Reserve in 1953.  He died in 1964 but can still be seen in the Victory at Sea episode “Suicide for Glory.”  He’s the chaplain on the burning carrier deck ministering to a dying sailor.

Perhaps it is Irish-Americans who should have been complaining.