Medal of Honor recipients
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2022: Unsung Heroes
Established during the Civil War in 1861, the Medal of Honor recognizes American soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, guardians and coast guardsmen for exceptional acts of valor. The medal is awarded by the President of the United States in the name of the U.S. Congress.
Some 3,530 Medals of Honor have been presented to 3,511 individuals, many posthumously, since the decoration’s creation. The Medal of Honor Historical Society has identified at least 71 medal recipients as New Jersey-born.
John Basilone, himself a 2011 New Jersey Hall of Fame inductee, is perhaps the best-known of New Jersey’s Medal of Honor recipients. Basilone, who grew up in Raritan, enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1940 after three years in the U.S. Army. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal in October 1942. Using a machine gun, pistol and machete, Basilone held off Japanese soldiers attacking his unit for three days and three nights. After returning to the United States to participate in war-bond tours, Basilone went back into action at his own request. He was killed in action in February 1945 at Iwo Jima. For his bravery in that engagement, Basilone received the Navy Cross; he is the only enlisted Marine to win both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross during World War II.
Among New Jersey’s earliest Medal of Honor awardees was Somerset County-native James Madison Drake, one of the many Garden State residents honored for heroism in the Civil War. Drake, a newspaper publisher in Trenton, fought at the first battle of Bull Run. He earned the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Port Walthall Junction in Virginia in May 1864. Drake, by then a first lieutenant, commanded a Union skirmish line far in advance of the main Union forces entering the battle. The line held for more than 24 hours in the face of constant Confederate fire. (Ten days later, Drake was captured by Confederate forces, but made a daring escape and managed to trek back to Union lines.)
The Garden State’s World War I-era Medal of Honor winners included Jersey City-born James Jonas Madison, an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve who was cited for his actions as commander of the cargo steamship USS Ticonderoga. The ship was bound for France in September 1918 when it was attacked by a German submarine. Despite severe wounds, Madison directed the defense and maneuvering of his ship for two hours under intense enemy fire. After giving the order to abandon ship, Madison collapsed from his wounds, but was lowered into a lifeboat and eventually rescued with 31 members of his crew. Madison never fully recovered from his wounds, finally succumbing on Christmas Day 1922.
Basilone was hardly alone among New Jersey residents in earning the Medal of Honor for heroism during World War II. Among the many others was Glen Ridge-born Franklin Earl Sigler, who gained Medal of Honor recognition for his bravery at Iwo Jima. Sigler joined the Marines Corps after graduation from Little Falls High School. On Iwo Jima, Sigler, a private-first-class, took command of his unit when his squad leaders were wounded and led the squad against a Japanese gun position. He attacked the gun position with grenades and single-handedly assaulted the neighboring tunnels and caves. Wounded, he crawled back to his squad and directed further fire against the caves. Despite his own wounds and under heavy fire, he then carried three injured men to safety behind the lines.
More New Jersey men subsequently were honored for their bravery in Korea and Vietnam. The list of Vietnam-era Medal of Honor winners includes Marine Staff Sergeant Peter S. Connor of Orange, who died after using his own body to absorb a grenade explosion, thereby saving his nearby comrades; Staff Sergeant John Gary Gertsch of Jersey City, who died during operations in the A Shau Valley while shielding an aidman as he moved a wounded soldier to safety; Ramsey-born Master Sergeant Charles Ernest Hosking Jr., who died while subduing a Viet Cong prisoner who was threatening his command group with an armed grenade; Major Charles Joseph Watters of Jersey City, an Army chaplain who ventured into the face of the enemy to rescue injured troopers and was killed while moving among positions to give aid to the wounded; and Trenton-born Sergeant First Class Fred William Zabitosky, who distinguished himself while leading a patrol deep inside enemy-held territory and pulling wounded members of his team from a blazing helicopter that had crashed during a rescue attempt.
These are but a handful of examples of the kind of heroism displayed by New Jersey’s extraordinary Medal of Honor recipients.