By Joe Lacdan, Army News Service
WASHINGTON -- After more than 70 years, the late Garlin Conner, a Kentucky farmer and World War II veteran, was finally awarded the medal that escaped him for so long.
President Donald J. Trump presented the Medal of Honor to Conner's widow, Pauline, in a White House ceremony yesterday.
“Lt. Garlin Murl Conner was indeed a giant,” Trump said to an audience that included Conner's family and two other Medal of Honor recipients. “In his daring, his devotion, and his duty, he was larger than life. And that, he was. He will never, ever be forgotten. We will never forget his story.”
Trump recalled the morning of Jan. 24, 1945, when Conner ran alone toward an attacking battalion of 600 German soldiers and six towering Panzer tanks in the frigid cold to direct American artillery rounds. The first lieutenant's actions saved dozens of American lives in the 3rd Infantry Division, the president said.
He detailed Conner's bravery to those in attendance, many of whom didn't know the extent of Conner's valor until after his death in 1998. Conner served in 10 campaigns while spending 28 months on the front lines.
Pauline Conner, an 89-year old resident of Clinton County, Kentucky, cared for her husband in the later stages of his life, when he suffered from Parkinson's disease, diabetes and kidney failure. She also participated in the 22-year campaign that resulted in his service being recognized with the Medal of Honor.
“She hoped and prayed she would live to see this day,” Trump said of Conner’s widow. “Pauline is truly a wonderful, incredible person. And it's my privilege to be with you today as we award your late husband our nation's highest military honor.”
Conner's Curious Case
Conner's family said in the decades that followed his return from the war, few in his native Clinton County knew about his wartime achievements. Outside of a parade and short speech in May 1945, his exploits were hardly publicized.
Pauline said her husband rarely spoke about the war during their entire 53 years of marriage. To put history in perspective, that January day Conner risked his life was more than a year before Trump, the nation's oldest-elected president, was born.
How could one of the most decorated soldiers in U.S. history go for so long without the nation's highest military decoration?
Conner, described by family members as reserved and humble, didn’t pursue the award for most of his lifetime. His family said he didn't want to appear boastful and would rather give credit to his fellow soldiers.
Though work -- including interviews with three eyewitnesses -- began on the extensive paperwork required for the award, wartime conditions prevented its completion. Conner's battalion commander, Maj. Gen. Lloyd Ramsey, was injured shortly after the battle, and Conner demobilized in June. Ramsey asked Conner to pursue the award over the years, as the two kept in touch through letters and phone calls until Conner’s death.
But Conner declined each time.
Many of Conner's wartime records were lost or not properly documented. It wasn't until 2006 that three soldier accounts of that morning in 1945 were discovered in the National Archives.
Conner, known to his family as “Murl,” refused recognition for his heroic acts that winter morning. He spoke little about his achievements during the war. And they were extensive.
To date, the Army credits Conner with four Silver Stars, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts, the French Croix de Guerre and the American Defense Service Medal. Conner's relatives acknowledged the soldier might have earned more awards.
After joining the Army in 1941 at 21 years old, Conner served during the Battle of Anzio and the invasion of North Africa and earned a battlefield commission at Anzio.
Conner, who had already paid a heavy physical toll, had earned a trip home based on his time in service and battlefield accolades. He suffered a sniper wound to his left hip. But knowing a crucial battle loomed, Conner could not leave his unit. Still recovering from the injury, he slipped away from a military field hospital to rejoin his unit in eastern France.
“He was wounded seven times, but he couldn't stop,” Trump said. “He loved it and he loved our country. On the shores of Sicily, the beaches of Anzio, and the snow-covered mountains of France, he fought with everything he had to defeat the Nazi menace.”
On that January day in 1945, Conner ran 400 yards toward the German infantry until he laid in a shallow ditch, with part of his body exposed for three hours, guiding U.S. artillery rounds toward the German infantry.
When the German soldiers grew aware of Conner's actions they soon shifted their focus toward Conner. Trump said waves of soldiers ran toward the Kentucky native.
That's when Conner decided to put his life on the line for his unit, in the most daring fashion imaginable.
“When they were nearly on top of Lieutenant Conner, he ordered fire on his own position -- exactly where he was -- courageously choosing to face death in order to save his battalion and achieve victory for freedom,” Trump said. “And those people that were with him, many of them now gone, said it was the single bravest act they've ever seen.”
The onslaught that followed left the six German tanks destroyed, 50 Germans killed and 150 injured.
The campaign to get the Medal of Honor didn't begin until a 1996 meeting with a former Army Green Beret from Wisconsin, Richard Chilton. Chilton was searching for information on his late uncle, Gordon Roberts, an Army private first class who died shortly after landing in Anzio.
After Pauline presented Conner's war records to Chilton, Chilton asked if he could pursue the Medal of Honor on Conner's behalf. At the time, Conner could no longer speak or walk because of kidney and heart failure. Chilton began an extensive process that included compiling legal documents, interviewing soldiers who served alongside Conner and writing dozens of letters to members of Congress.
The campaign for the Medal of Honor was bumpy, including a rejection by the Army Board of Corrections in 1997. A later court refused an appeal in 2014, ruling Pauline had not filed her husband's paperwork in time.
It wasn't until March, when Pauline received a phone call from Trump, that she learned her husband would be assured the U.S. military's highest distinction.
Conner's 63-year old son, Paul, attended the ceremony, as did Conner's four grandchildren. Conner's grandson, Brett, serves in the Navy.
“Lieutenant Conner must be looking down from heaven, proud of this incredible honor,” Trump said. “But even prouder of the legacy that lives on in each of you.”