Sixty-four Wisconsinites have received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s rarest and most prestigious military decoration. Just three of them are still alive today.
“It’s so important, especially in the times that we’re facing today, to have that ability to talk to young people, to sit down and talk about valor and sacrifice,” said Harold Fritz, an Army officer who received his medal in for actions on January 11, 1969, during the Vietnam War.
Milwaukeeans will soon be able to do just that in the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center’s new exhibit honoring Medal of Honor recipients launching in August. Each recipient’s tale will live on in the form of artifacts, interactive displays, and short documentaries.
Fritz, for example, was severely wounded by an enemy attack while traversing southern Vietnam. Still, he led his platoon through the ambush, refusing medical treatment until enemy forces were pushed back and the wounded were evacuated.
Other recipients include Arthur and Douglas MacArthur, the first father and son to both be awarded the medal, and Mitchell Red Cloud, Wisconsin’s only Native American recipient who served in the Marines in World War I and then the Army during the Korean War.
Also honored are Richard Ira Bong, the “Ace of Aces” who downed 40 enemy aircraft, and Denis Murphy, an Irish immigrant who carried his regiment’s flag during battle despite being wounded three times.
The exhibit will feature stone tiles quarried from Sussex, Wisconsin. Each stone will be inscribed with a recipient’s name, branch of service, highest rank, home of record and the location and dates of their honored action.
The award is rare, with just over 3,500 total recipients nationally since it was first awarded in 1863. Just 28 have been awarded this century. The 64 honorees were either born in Wisconsin, grew up here, or lived and worked in the state.
“The goal here is not to glorify,” said Daniel Buttery, president of the memorial center. “They were just common people who did extraordinary things.”
The largest contingent of recipients served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Some were awarded posthumously, while others returned to the state after finishing service. Recipients can be claimed by multiple states.
The exhibit will be accompanied by another showcasing of all awards of value that led up to the Medal of Honor, such as the Silver Star, Navy Cross and Purple Heart. In recent years the center has also launched projects to memorialize fallen veterans and local female veterans.
There are three living Medal of Honors recipients with ties to Wisconsin: Gary Wetzel of South Milwaukee, Fritz of Lake Geneva and Rob Moderjewski of Milwaukee. A fourth recipient, Kenneth Stumpf, passed in April.
More:In a splintered nation, 3 from Wisconsin received the Medal of Honor in 1968
“America is a great country,” said Fritz, who now lives in Peoria, Ill. “Many have died to protect it. People here, whether they’ve served in the military or not, need to remember that the country is great because the people are great.”
Discussions for an exhibit began a decade ago, but a plan didn’t materialize until 2020, when Wetzel and his wife approached Buttery about installing an exhibit.
The goal, Buttery said, is to educate the public on the medal’s importance. The exhibit will include an online repository as well as 10 downloadable lesson plans for schoolchildren. The memorial is also working on a documentary about the life of Michael McCormack, a recipient who is buried in an unmarked grave in Milwaukee.
The memorial is 82% of the way to a $500,000 capital campaign goal tied to the exhibit, Buttery added.
How to see the exhibit
Buttery said he hopes to launch the exhibit with a reception in mid-August.
The memorial’s cantilevered building, designed by renowned architect Eero Saarinen, overlooks Lake Michigan and is connected to the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Admission to the entire memorial and exhibits is free. Parking in the lot just north of the building is approximately $8.
For now, the public can see a temporary exhibit sponsored by the Wisconsin chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America. Five cases, located in the memorial’s lower floor, are filled with Lego sets constructed by veterans.