By LIBBY CLUETT
MINERAL WELLS – Despite a rain shower and cooling spell earlier Saturday morning, over 100 veterans, active military, community members and at least two sets of Medal of Honor relatives gathered to dedicate Fort Wolters Historical Park's new memorial to those who received the highest military award, given by the president, and served in Mineral Wells during World War II or the Vietnam War.
Starting the event were veterans, many from the Vietnam War, with the American Legion Riders, who circled the park on motorcycles, and the North Texas Veterans Association, from Decatur, which posted colors and later closed the ceremony with a four-gun salute.
Mineral Wells High School Choir Director Mac Chestnut, a former U.S. Marine serving in direct-air support, sang before and at the conclusion of the ceremony.
Three key speakers gave perspectives on the Medal of Honor, beginning with U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway. He said there have been around 3,400 recipients of the Medal of Honor, dating back to the Civil War, and most – Audie Murphy aside – live out quiet lives.
He recalled a fellow Odessa high school student, Staff Sgt. Rex Young, who died in battle in Vietnam and later received the Medal of Honor. He said he thinks about the sacrifice Young made and the life he didn't get to live.
Conaway told the crowd that it's important to have people willing to take the risks involved with serving in the military and to take care of those who survive battle.
“Future generations of Americans will only take those risks if we take care of the ones who have done it and survived it,” he said.
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Lee Evans, a “Mineral Wells son,” also addressed the crowd and presented a display of flags.
“It is my honor and a privilege to represent the active-duty soldiers who have taken up the guidon and followed in the footsteps of these brave individuals,” Evans said.
He explained that one year ago, when the Medal of Honor memorial was being dedicated at Mineral Wells High School – the site of Camp Wolters – he was in command of Seventh Battalion, conducting special operations in the African Continent and of a joint unit in Katar.
“Upon that day, I conveyed it to my troops that it's important that you remember those that have gone before you because that is what fuels the fire of imagination of our brave soldiers, sailors, airmen and Coast Guardsmen out there that fight on this country's behalf. As a response … they flew these flags above their compound, some of them in the heat of battle, and had a formation last year on the 25th of March to commemorate this wonderful testament to the Medal of Honor winners of this country,” he said pointing to a framed display of six folded flags, “and specifically to this community, the 14 that we have commemorated.
“Those soldiers out there do know and understand Medal of Honor means something, the United States of America means something, and when we see what's been thrown down before us, we are charged with keeping that going,” he added.
Evans concluded by thanking the Fort Wolters Gate Committee for honoring the Medal of Honor awardees and thanking two sets of Medal of Honor awardee relatives – Bill Knight and June Campbell, brother and sister of Jack Knight, a Garner native, and Sandee and Tom Swanson, the widow and brother of Jon Swanson, who were in attendance from Colorado.
One brother's story
Bill Knight, who with his sister June Campbell, was at this year's and last year's ceremonies, said it was an honor to come and represent his brother, Jack Knight, and the 13 other Medal of Honor recipients.
Locally grown, he said their family, which included seven boys and one girl, grew up on a farm just east of Lake Mineral Wells.
“We had to grub out a living there during the depression and into the war,” Knight recalled. “And that experience, I think, helped develop a lot of character for especially those older boys who served in World War II. I was too young for that one.
“Our childhood playground, for a number of years, was the state park down here,” he said, pointing in the direction of Lake Mineral Wells State Park. “And we roamed all over those rocks, crannies and … banks of Lake Mineral Wells.”
“We drew our sustenance from that used-up land around Garner and Bethesda … and during that time, we learned how to work, thinking about better times, and we learned how to love one another.”
Knight and Campbell were the youngest of the children, but several of their older brothers took up the call to action.
“In 1940, Jack, Curtis and Roy – the three oldest [Knight brothers] – took these lessons they learned over time with them when they joined the 124th cavalry, Troop F, stationed here. That was a National Guard unit at old Camp Wolters, where the high school is,” Bill Knight said.
“They were strong enough, tough enough and smart enough to become leaders. In the end, on that hill in the Burma Road, in early 1945, Jack with Curtis and a number of warriors from around Mineral Wells did their job in an exceptionally successful way,” he added.
He shared how learning how to love became important to his eldest brothers.
The locally trained cavalrymen left their horses in Kansas and combined with infantry forces to make the 5332nd Brigade, called the Mars Task Force, Knight said. He added that they trained as commandos in India, whose mission was to march 400 miles in the mountains and jungle in northern Burma to open the Burma Road from Japanese control.
“During that battle, which for Jack lasted about 15 minutes, when they found him on that hill [unofficially called Knight's Hill] … he went above an beyond the call of duty, sacrificing his life to lead his men through a battle that was as ferocious as a battle can be,” Bill Knight said. “He had learned to love his men as he had his family.”
Through his research with the Medal of Honor awardees, Knight said he “has come to believe that most, if not all, men who receive the Medal of Honor do so out of a deep love … for those men around him.”
“In fact, he told his non-coms, minutes before they attacked, 'If any of you guys don't go home, I won't either,'” Knight told the crowd. “He knew what he was going to do. Before he was killed, he saw some of his comrades killed, so there was no stopping him.”
Archives at the University of Texas, Arlington, state the following on Jack Knight:
“On February 2, 1945, First Lieutenant Knight, while commanding F Troop, encountered Japanese forces near Lio Kang Ridge, located near the intersection of the Burma and Ledo Roads, near Namhkan, Burma (now Myanmar). During the engagement, Knight destroyed enemy positions and was wounded. Knight’s brother, Curtis, a First Sergeant in the same unit, rushed to his brother’s aid only to be wounded and removed from battle. Jack Knight received further injuries to the face after a grenade explosion, yet continued to assault and destroy enemy positions until he was mortally wounded. Knight was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on June 6, 1945.”
“So, all of you take comfort in the fact that these men who gave an amount of fame from the intrepidity of battle know how to love. We just can't ask more from a human being,” Knight concluded.
In all, 14 men from all over the nation, who trained in Mineral Wells' Camp Wolters and Fort Wolters, received the Medal of Honor. Not all lost their lives during battle, like Knight and Swanson; some continued on to make movies and write books.
The memorial is located at the “Y” in Washington and Hood roads, just north of the historic Fort Wolters gateway arch. It now stands as a testament to these brave souls who performed outstandingly on behalf of a grateful nation.