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December 03, 2019

“Medal of Honor – Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things”

This past November, in recognition of Veterans Day, Jerry Perdue, a Korean Veteran, presented a program at the Bassett Historical Center about the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest award for valor in action against an enemy force engaging in war against the United States.  His program included facts, a brief history, and several personal stories of some of the recipients – just ordinary people doing extraordinary things.   This prestigious personal military decoration known as the Medal of Honor is awarded by the United States President in the name of the U.S. Congress.  There are three versions of this medal: one for the Army, one for the Navy, and one for the Air Force.  Personnel of the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard receiving this award are presented with the Navy version. The medal itself has no respecter of person, only of deeds.  It has been awarded over the years to both privates and generals; men of all races and faiths; immigrants from sixteen foreign countries; city boys as well as country boys of all ages. Of the forty two million men and women who have served our nation in the military since the Civil War, only 3,525 of these medals have been awarded to 3,506 individuals.

 Here are some of the interesting facts associated with the Medal of Honor that were shared at the program.  Forty percent of the total number of medals awarded was presented for actions that occurred during the Civil War.  There have been a total of nineteen men that have been double recipients of the Medal of Honor; one being Thomas Custer, brother of General George Custer, and one being Robert Augustus Sweeney.  Sweeney was a sailor in the U.S. Navy and is the only African American to receive the Medal of Honor twice, both awarded for peace time actions.  There have been two sets of fathers and sons which include Arthur MacArthur and his son Douglas, and Theodore Roosevelt and his son, Theodore, Jr.  There have also been five pairs of brothers that share this honor.  The youngest recipient was Willie Johnston.  At eleven years old, he enlisted in the Union Army with his father and he served as a drummer boy in the third Vermont Infantry during the Civil War.  His unit became overpowered by Confederate forces and had to retreat under the orders of General George McClellan.  Along the way, men discarded their weapons and much of their equipment to quicken their pace.  Willie kept his drum throughout the march and, when Abraham Lincoln heard about his bravery, he recommended him for the Medal of Honor.  Willie received the medal in September 1863 at the age of thirteen.  Only one female has received this recognition, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker who was a surgeon during the Civil War.  She was rejected as an Army surgeon because she was female, but she chose to volunteer as a surgeon for the Union Army as a civilian.  She felt that she had been awarded the Medal of Honor due to the fact that she had gone into enemy territory to care for those who were injured. Her medal was rescinded in 1917 along with several other non-combat awards, but it was restored in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter. 

The total number of Medal of Honor recipients includes seventy four Virginians; seven being alumni from VMI and seven being Virginia Tech alumni.  Closer to home, there has been only one Medal of Honor recipient from Chatham, Virginia by the name of Staff Sergeant Archer T. Gammon and three have been from Lynchburg, Virginia including Private First Class Desmond Thomas Doss whose military story has been told in the movie Hacksaw Ridge.  Henry County is represented in this distinguished list with a Henry Countian by marriage, Technical Sergeant Robert Elwood Gerstung.    Robert Gerstung was born August 6, 1915 in Chicago, Illinois to Fred Gerstung and Lillian Tramm Gerstung.  He served in the United States Army during World War II as a member of H Company of the 313th infantry of the 79th division.  Sergeant Gerstung witnessed severe fighting in France and in the invasion of Germany as his division saw 120 days of continuous combat action.  On December 16, 1944, he and the other members of his company were paralyzed by enemy mortar, tank, and rifle fire near the Siegfried line near Berg, Germany.  While wounded, Gerstung was able to single handedly hold off a counter attack from the enemy for eight hours, long enough to permit the safe withdrawal of his company with some sadly becoming casualties.  He was able to maintain the operation of a machine gun until it jammed and then quickly crawled to another weapon of the same type to continue his fight. One hundred yards from safety, he was struck in the leg by a mortar shell; but with great effort and determination, he crawled the remaining distance to join the remaining members of his company.  His Medal of Honor was issued on September 5, 1945 by President Harry S. Truman.  Technical Sergeant Gerstung was honorably discharged from the Army on September 28, 1945 as a highly decorated soldier, the Medal of Honor being among his many awards.  He met his future bride, Sallie Willie Kallam, daughter of William Franklin Kallam and Sallie Marshall Kallam of Martinsville, while working in Washington, D.C.  Willie Kallam worked in the U.S. Military Intelligence Division War Department for a short period of time and also for the Signal Corps helping to manage communications and information systems for the command and control of the U.S. combined forces.  The two were married on June 25, 1947 and lived in Chicago, Illinois.  Robert Gerstung died at the age of sixty three on June 17, 1979 and was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.  Willie moved back home to Martinsville shortly after the death of her husband and lived out her life on Corn Tassel Trail until the age of 94.  She died on December 6, 2008 and was buried beside of her husband.  Among the many displays and items that are housed here at the Bassett Historical Center, a display of citations, information, and medals belonging to Technical Sergeant Robert E. Gerstung which were donated by the family can be seen in the Center’s War Room.  Currently there are seventy one living recipients of the Medal of Honor – two from World War II; five from the Korean War; forty nine from Vietnam; fourteen from the War in Afghanistan; one from the War in Iraq.










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