Some say that the story of a World War II soldier, Lieutenant Garlin M. Conner and the Medal of Honor has a fairy tale ending. Others would disagree. With a record of courage under fire and a passel of other honors for his performance in the Third Infantry Division, Conner was no superhero, but an ordinary man who demonstrated extraordinary leadership and bravery in battle.
On Jan. 25, 1945, Conner and his men were fighting the Germans in Alsace, a French Province. The young lieutenant – or Murl, as he was known – had been wounded two days earlier and was recovering away from the front lines, along with other casualties. When he heard what was happening in the ongoing German assault, he slipped away and headed toward the action, grabbing a field phone along the way.
He volunteered to be a forward observer, using the phone to report back to his own artillery about the advancing threat. In spite of tank and artillery barrage, he moved toward peril and ended up diving into an irrigation ditch for safety. As the battle raged, Murl realized it would make sense to call in his own artillery to his position.
Without question, he willingly risked his life for his country.
Murl Conner survived. When the war was over, he went home to Clinton County, Kentucky. He married, raised a family and grew tobacco on a farm with cows, sows and chickens. True to form, he was also a leader in the local farming community and helped returning veterans. He did not pursue a Medal of Honor, the highest accolade a soldier can achieve, although he had exhibited “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty” on that January day in 1945.
On Monday, May 25, “From Honor to Medal: The Story of Garlin M. Conner” premieres on KET at 8 p.m. Eastern/7 Central time. The film chronicles the 20-year campaign by Murl’s widow, friends, and admirers to secure the Medal of Honor in Conner’s name.
The circuitous route to the medal required unrelenting support that included grassroots, generals, congressmen, a congressional aide and a former Miss America. Along the way, hopes were dashed many times. The statute of limitations had already passed and there were many bureaucratic hoops to jump through. Nevertheless, Murl’s admirers and supporters prevailed.
Murl Conner died on Nov. 5, 1998. It wasn’t until June 26, 2018 that the Medal of Honor was given to Pauline Conner, commemorating her husband’s heroism in 1945.
The film weaves back and forth between past and present to the many phases of the campaign to secure the medal for Murl.
As one of 11 kids in rural Kentucky, he learned practical skills of tracking and hunting, plus he was a sharp-eyed marksman. Out of the seven boys in the family, four of his brothers also fought in WWII. Before he joined the army in March 1941, Murl and a friend, Johnny Ray Cooksey, joined the Civil Conservation Corps and did some traveling with the job. When the two came home, they got in a little trouble.
An old friend remarked that, when asked why he joined the Army, Murl said it was a choice he made between that and jail. The two young men were first sent to fight in Italy. Johnny Ray was killed in action and Garlin Murl Conner went on to fight at Anzio and then into France.
When the war was over, Murl went back home and settled into rural life again. Murl’s son Paul described the Conners as a “hard-working household” that had the first TV in town and welcomed others in the community to visit and watch with them. Like so many other rural families, Saturdays meant a trip to town where, he remembered, “We got ice cream floats.”
The inspiring film about the Medal of Honor and Garlin M. Conner begins and ends with a once-upon-a-time nostalgia expressed in images of a small town in Kentucky which, like so many others across the United States, perches in the shadow of mountains, creek beds, hills and valleys. It is a place that “carries forward clear memory of those who marked the soil with sacrifice.”
While not a fairy tale ending, the documentary follows Murl Conner’s journey and tells a simple story, one that should be told and re-told, especially on Memorial Day 2020.
A trailer for the film is available on honortomedal.us.