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Above and Beyond the Call of Duty: Gen. George Marshall Obtains the Medal of Honor for Gen. Douglas MacArthur

On March 25, 1942, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall sent a memorandum to President Franklin Roosevelt marked “Secret.” The subject line read: “Medal of Honor, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.”

The memo contained details of MacArthur’s recommendation for the Medal of Honor. It was dry and businesslike – and an extraordinary act of magnanimity by Marshall. The two generals hated each other. Despite this, Marshall not only recommended that MacArthur receive the Medal of Honor, he personally wrote the citation. In doing so Marshall truly went “above and beyond the call of duty.”

Their mutual dislike originated in 1909, when as lieutenants they were stationed at Fort Leavenworth.

Their mutual dislike originated in 1909, when as lieutenants they were stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Their relationship might have remained at that level, the consequence of their extreme differences of personality (MacArthur egotistical and theatrical, Marshall quiet and shy) but for an unfortunate sequence of events occurring during the final week of World War I.

In November 1918, Brig. Gen. MacArthur requested permission to capture the town of Sedan with his 42nd Division. Col. Marshall, a rising star in American Expeditionary Force Commander Gen. John Pershing’s staff, composed the order authorizing it. Unfortunately, a poorly worded revision written by a superior turned an orderly attack into a competitive free-for-all between the 42nd and 1st Divisions. A tremendous traffic jam ensued at a strategic crossroads. When MacArthur tried to sort things out, because he was not wearing a regulation uniform he was arrested by a 1st Division lieutenant who suspected him of being a German spy! MacArthur never forgot the humiliation. From that point on, Marshall was a marked man.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur

Gen. Douglas MacArthur (center) with his Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Richard Sutherland, in the headquarters tunnel on Corregidor, Philippines, March 1, 1942. National Archives photo

MacArthur’s opportunity for revenge came in 1933 when he was Army Chief of Staff and Marshall a colonel. Retired Gen. Pershing wrote a letter to MacArthur asking that Marshall be promoted to brigadier general. Instead, MacArthur issued orders sending Marshall to the Illinois National Guard as an instructor – a posting suggesting that Marshall’s military career was finished.

Fortunately, Marshall’s career was only temporarily derailed. On Sept. 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, Marshall was sworn in as Army Chief of Staff.

The opening months of World War II for the United States were among the darkest in its history. The only bright spot, if it could be called that, was MacArthur’s continuing defense of Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines. MacArthur supporters in Congress introduced a bill authorizing that he be awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts. Marshall could have remained silent, or moved to squash the recommendation. Instead, he chose to pre-empt Congress. In a memorandum to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Marshall wrote that “the honor would mean more if it developed from War Department rather than Congressional recognition.”

It’s tempting to think that someone (not a MacArthur fan) had a sense of humor in arranging the presentation schedule once the general arrived in Australia after fleeing the Philippines. MacArthur’s Medal of Honor ceremony occurred on April 1, 1942 – April Fool’s Day.

Marshall decided to compose MacArthur’s citation himself. In his cover letter to Secretary of War Stimson he wrote that “while there is no specific act of Gen. MacArthur’s to justify the award of the Medal of Honor under a literal interpretation of the statutes, I feel that the services that he has rendered merit some recognition far above that of any other decoration which we now confer. After Col. Lindbergh made his flight to Paris in 1927 he was awarded the Medal of Honor by Congressional action. This in itself would establish a precedent for the proposed action in the case of Gen. MacArthur. “I submit this recommendation to you not only because I feel that General MacArthur is deserving of the honor but also because I am certain that this action will meet with popular approval, both within and without the armed forces, and will have a constructive morale value.” The attached citation read:

“For conspicuous leadership in preparing the Philippine Islands to resist conquest, for gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action against invading Japanese forces, and for the heroic conduct of defensive and offensive operations on the Bataan Peninsula. He mobilized, trained, and led an army which has received world acclaim for its gallant defense against a tremendous superiority of enemy forces in men and arms. His utter disregard of personal danger under heavy fire and aerial bombardment, his calm judgment in each crisis, inspired his troops, galvanized the spirit of resistance of the Filipino people, and confirmed the faith of the American people in their Armed Forces.”

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but it’s tempting to think that someone (not a MacArthur fan) had a sense of humor in arranging the presentation schedule once the general arrived in Australia after fleeing the Philippines. MacArthur’s Medal of Honor ceremony occurred on April 1, 1942 – April Fool’s Day.

This story was originally published on February 4, 2010


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-71">

    MacArthur did nothing to receive this honor. I am surprised Marshall did it. America had real heroes without wasting an honor on MacArthur.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-72">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    Personally, I always had some problems with MacArthur’s strategy in the Philippines. The result may have been inevitable, but I think he made some big mistakes. Having his air force caught on the ground by the Japanese a day after Pearl Harbor was one of them.

    But America needed heroes, and MacArthur was so well-known already that if the government hadn’t presented the end of the Philippines as inevitable, despite heroic resistance, and given a medal to him, it would have looked even more like a debacle.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-73">
    Robert F. Dorr

    The medal probably should have gone to Capt. Jesus Villamor (although I though his name was spelled Villamoor), the other figure in the photo above, who battled the Japanese while piloting the Boeing P-26 Peashooter. The best history of MacArthur’s worst day appears in “December 8, 1941: Macarthur/s Pearl Harbor,” by Bill Bartsch. Whatever happened in the days that followed, MacArthur has been given a free pass for his conduct on December 8. Warned for months that the Japanese might attack, aware for six hours that they had attacked Pearl Harbor, MacArthur sequestered himself for a period of time, making himself unavailable to all but his top aide. Had he used his airpower effectively that day, he might have slowed the Japanese advance. MacArthur is a towering figure in history but he is not one of our greatest generals. They are Robert E. Lee, George C. Marshall, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-74">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    From what I’ve heard, MacArthur’s top aide wasn’t exactly liked or respected universally either. Bob, I think the spelling “Villamor” is right, but I will definitely double-check.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-75">
    Kristen D. Larsen

    General MacArthur was the only one awarded a medal for loosing a campaign. He lost the Phillipenes! Dugoout Doug (as he was sometimes known) Did not deserve the Medal of Honor. On the other hand one man who did deserve it but was never awarded the Medal of Honor was Louis B. (Chesty) Puller, USMC. During the battle for Guadalcanal rescued some troops that were ambushed by the Japanese and were being wiped out.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-76">
    Robert F. Dorr

    Puller’s first name was Lewis.

    Villamor (not Villamoor) is the correct spelling,

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-69152">
    Dwight Zimmerman

    In truth, it was a political award. Eisenhower was also offered the Medal of Honor, but he declined. Other historians have noted that in the early months of the war more latitude was given to honoring individuals. Another example is MG Fredendall who suffered the debacle at Kasserine Pass. Instead of being demoted, he was reassigned and promoted to lieutenant general. He never again held a combat command, but he was fortunate to be involved in an early battle when America was had prestige in mind. Later on in the war punishments for failure were more severe.