Fight for Kentucky World War II hero to get Medal of Honor goes on 16 years after his death

gkocher1@herald-leader.comJuly 13, 2014 

FRANKFORT — The campaign to have Kentucky-born Army 1st Lt. Garlin Murl Conner awarded the Medal of Honor continues despite a setback.

Conner earned four Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, seven Purple Hearts and the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during 28 straight months of combat in World War II. But the Clinton County native never received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military distinction, given by Congress for risk of life in combat beyond the call of duty.

The quest has now moved to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. There, Lexington attorneys Dennis Shepherd and Donald Todd hope to convince a panel of judges that errors have prevented Conner from receiving the medal.

"I don't know if I'm going to win or lose in federal court," Shepherd said. "But somehow I'm going to find a way to get this before (Defense) Secretary (Chuck) Hagel and the president. If they see who this man is, I think they're going to understand an error was made."

The core of the case is this: On Jan. 24, 1945, while recovering from a battlefield wound near Houssen, France, Conner ran away from his field hospital to rejoin his unit, and thereafter single-handedly held off the advance of six German tanks and 600 German infantrymen. Unrolling a spool of wire so he could use a field telephone, Conner directed artillery to fall on his own position, killing 50 enemy soldiers and wounding 100.

Conner's commander, Lt. Col. Lloyd Ramsey, was seriously wounded the next day, so the paperwork for the Medal of Honor went up the chain of command without Ramsey's guidance.

Years later, Ramsey wrote in his 2006 memoir that Conner's award "should have been a Medal of Honor" for what he did in January 1945. Ramsey wrote that he had "never seen a man with as much courage."

Conner never spoke about his exploits during the war. When he returned to Kentucky, he gave one speech in 1945 but never mentioned anything that he did. He focused instead on what his unit did.

The Army Board for Correction of Military Records first rejected Conner's application in 1997 and turned away an appeal in June 2000. Conner died in 1998 at age 79.

In an opinion issued in March, a U.S. district judge wrote that Conner's widow, Pauline, had waited too long to present new evidence to alter her husband's service record. Those on the team representing the Conner family will ask the Court of Appeals to overturn the district court decision and direct the court to hear the merits of the complaint.

The new evidence is three eyewitness affidavits crediting Conner with helping save the lives of fellow soldiers. But Shepherd said the Army board never saw that evidence because its staff "illegally ruled on whether the board members would ever see the newly discovered evidence."

In order for the statute of limitations to apply, the board must have ruled on the application for reconsideration. But Shepherd argues that the board staff prevented the board from ever seeing the evidence, so the statute of limitations doesn't expire until Feb. 4, 2015.

"All that has ever been desired is the right for this family to present testimony of three eyewitnesses to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records," Shepherd wrote in the brief to the court of appeals.

One of those eyewitnesses, Harold J. Miller, wrote that Conner "had almost single-handedly smashed the attack of an entire (German) battalion and saved our own battalion."

The other argument is that the Constitution empowers federal courts to "look beyond the black letter of the law in the interests of equity, meaning fairness and meaning justice," the brief says.

"This isn't about money. This is about heroism. This is about honor," said Shepherd, sole counsel for the state Department of Veterans Affairs in Frankfort. "Why are we arguing over procedural technicalities? Why aren't we looking at the merits and telling the board to consider these three eyewitness accounts? Equity requires that, and a federal court has the power through equity, not law, to decide on fairness."

Shepherd, 64, is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. He wrote Returning Son, a book about the first Kentucky Marine injured in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After publication of that book in 2004, the Conner family contacted Shepherd for help. Later, Shepherd worked with the state attorney general's office and state Department of Public Advocacy, then went to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he works in his official capacity to again help the Conner family's quest for the Medal of Honor.

Asked why it matters if Conner receives the Medal of Honor, given that he already was one of the most decorated Kentuckians, Shepherd said he was inspired by Conner.

"He can excel over everyone else simply by his volunteerism, simply by being a crack shot, simply by putting himself in danger all the time and coming out alive," Shepherd said.

But perhaps the better answer is within Shepherd's brief to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

There he writes that Conner faced six tanks, "a constant barrage of bullets, and artillery shells falling within a few feet of himself.

"He shouldn't have a judicial barrier to his heroism.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: HLpublicsafety.

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