California Recipients of the Medal of Honor
By Bill Betten, Co-Director of the California WW1 Centennial Task Force
Though many California Doughboys and sailors did not make it to the combat zones until late in World War 1, over a million Americans did and Californians were among them. Along with that chance to serve came the opportunity to display the courage and “boldness under fire” for which Americans from all across our great nation would soon be known. With that, their country would recognize their valor and present them with its ultimate decoration, that of the Medal of Honor.
The Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force which can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States. Usually presented to the soldier or sailor personally by the President of the United States of America in the name of the U.S. Congress, the Medal of Honor carries a distinction that surpasses all others.
WW1 era Medals of Honor
On left: US Army MOH - On right: US Navy MOH
[Note: There was as yet during WW1 no US Air
Force. All aviators receiving the MOH did so from the
branch through which they were then serving.]
Below is listed alphabetically those brave Californians who in WW1 did distinguished themselves “above and beyond the call of duty.” Some survived their “moment of valor,” others received their medal posthumously as noted with an *.
Recipients of the Medal of Honor whom entered service in California.
Jesse W. Covington
Rank and organization: Ship's Cook Third Class, U.S. Navy.
Place and date: At sea aboard the U.S.S. Stewart, April 17, 1918, Quiberon Bay, France
Born: September 16, 1889, Haywood, Tenn.
Jesse Whitfield Covington was born in September of 1889 in Haywood, Tennessee. After enlisting in the U.S. Navy as an Apprentice Seaman in 1908, he served as a Seaman on board the receiving ship Pensacola, and the cruisers California, Pennsylvania, and St. Louis. Reenlisted in 1912, over the next three years he served on board the USS Iris and receiving ships at San Francisco and Mare Island, California. From 1915 until the end of World War I in November 1918, Covington was assigned to the destroyer Stewart with the rating of Ship's Cook Third Class. On April 17, 1918, while that ship was on escort duty in French waters, the American steamer Florence H. accidentally exploded in Quiberon Bay off the south coast of the Brittany peninsula of France. The Stewart went to assist. There, displaying "extraordinary heroism," Covington dove overboard to rescue a survivor who was surrounded by exploding powder boxes.
His citation reads: "For extraordinary heroism following internal explosion of the Florence H., on 17 April 1918. The sea in the vicinity of wreckage was covered by a mass of boxes of smokeless powder, which were repeatedly exploding. JESSE W. COVINGTON, of the U.S.S. Stewart, plunged overboard to rescue a survivor who was surrounded by powder boxes and too exhausted to help himself, fully realizing that similar powder boxes in the vicinity were continually exploding and that he was thereby risking his life in saving the life of this man."
Covington continued to served in the Navy on destroyers, cruisers, and battleships eventually being promoted to Chief Steward in the late 1920s, during his final enlistment. Chief Steward Jesse W. Covington transferred to the Fleet Reserve in January 1931 and was retired in May 1935. He died at Richmond, Virginia on 21 November 1966 and is buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia.
Of unique interest to me is this next recipient, not only because of his valor, but because I went to school on the sight of his family’s farm.
HOLDERMAN, NELSON M.
Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Army, 307th Infantry, 77th Division.
Place and date: Northeast of Binarville, in the forest of Argonne, France, October 2-8, 1918.
Entered service at: Santa Ana, Calif.
Born: Trumbell, Nebraska
When seven-year-old Nelson Holderman came with his family to Tustin, California in 1893 from Nebraska where he had been born, his father, a farmer, bought twenty acres and planted oranges, walnuts and apricots.
The Holdermans had three daughters, and two sons when they came to Tustin. Their second son was named Nelson Miles, following an American tradition of the time of naming children after military heroes. Nelson Appleton Miles had been a Civil War hero, and perhaps prophetically, a Medal of Honor recipient himself.
Holderman entered service in the California National Guard in the City of Santa Ana as a Private. He advanced to the rank of noncommissioned officer, and was later elected as a Lieutenant in Company L which served in 1916 on the Mexican border during the time of Pancho Villa's raid into the United States. Foreshadowing the future, the general he served under there, General John J. Pershing, would one day be his Commander in Chief during WW1.
The company was assigned as a replacement to a company in the 77th Division. Once in France, in September of 1918, just one month before the war would come to an end, Company L, now Captain Holderman’s command, took part in General Pershing’s thrust into the Argonne. In the first days of October, the company was one of those trapped with what would be called “The Lost Battalion.” Cut off and surrounded, the Americans were in deep trouble. Over two-thirds of their force would be wounded, captured, or killed, but “The Lost Battalion” Doughboys never surrendered. It is no wonder that Captain Holderman was one of four to receive the Medal of Honor in the stand-off with the Germans. Holderman also would get the California Medal for Valor.
His citation reads: Capt. Holderman commanded a company of a battalion which was cut off and surrounded by the enemy. He was wounded on 4, 5, and 7 October, but throughout the entire period, suffering great pain and subjected to fire of every character, he continued personally to lead and encourage the officers and men under his command with unflinching courage and with distinguished success. On 6 October, in a wounded condition, he rushed through enemy machinegun and shell fire and carried 2 wounded men to a place of safety.
This brief statement only encapsulates what Captain Holderman’s commanding officer Major Whittlesey reported. Whittlesey’s recommendation better details the five days of Hell that the wounded Captain Holderman endured.
After the war, Capt. Holderman rejoined the National Guard and was appointed a colonel. In 1926, the governor of California appointed him the commandant of the Yountville Soldier's Home. Holderman worked tirelessly for the veterans for over 25 years, building new dorms and other facilities including a hospital. He served until his death on Sept. 3, 1953. He is buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery, San Bruno, Calif.
Holderman was considered by many as the most decorated soldier of World War I, yet it was said that he never used his fame for personal gain, and that he worked tirelessly for veterans.
KATZ, PHILLIP C.
Rank and organization: Sergeant, U.S. Army, Company C, 363d Infantry, 91st Division.
Place and date: Near Eclisfontaine, France, September 26, 1918.
Entered service at: San Francisco, Calif.
Born: San Francisco, Calif.
His citation reads: After his company had withdrawn for a distance of 200 yards on a line with the units on its flanks, Sergeant Katz learned that one of his comrades had been left wounded in an exposed position at the point from which the withdrawal had taken place. Voluntarily crossing an area swept by heavy machinegun fire, he advanced to where the wounded soldier lay and carried him to a place of safety.
*MILLER, OSCAR F.
Rank and organization: Major, U.S. Army, 361st Infantry, 91st Division.
Place and date: Near Gesnes, France, September 28, 1918.
Entered service at: Los Angeles, Calif.
Born: Franklin County, Ark.
His citation reads: After 2 days of intense physical and mental strain, during which Maj. Miller had led his battalion in the front line of the advance through the forest of Argonne, the enemy was met in a prepared position south of Gesnes. Though almost exhausted, he energetically reorganized his battalion and ordered an attack. Upon reaching open ground the advancing line began to waver in the face of machinegun fire from the front and flanks and direct artillery fire. Personally leading his command group forward between his front-line companies, Maj. Miller inspired his men by his personal courage, and they again pressed on toward the hostile position. As this officer led the renewed attack he was shot in the right leg, but he nevertheless staggered forward at the head of his command. Soon afterwards he was again shot in the right arm, but he continued the charge, personally cheering his troops on through the heavy machinegun fire. Just before the objective was reached he received a wound in the abdomen, which forced him to the ground, but he continued to urge his men on, telling them to push on to the next ridge and leave him where he lay. He died from his wounds a few days later.
Rank and organization: Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army, 115th Infantry, 29th Division.
Pace and date: Bois-de-Consenvoye, France, October 8, 1918.
Entered service at: Los Angeles, Calif.
Born: Middleboro, Mass.
His citation reads: While leading his platoon against a strong enemy machinegun nest which had held up the advance of 2 companies, 2d Lt. Regan divided his men into 3 groups, sending 1 group to either flank, and he himself attacking with an automatic rifle team from the front. Two of the team were killed outright, while 2d Lt. Regan and the third man were seriously wounded, the latter unable to advance. Although severely wounded, 2d Lt. Regan dashed with empty pistol into the machinegun nest, capturing 30 Austrian gunners and 4 machineguns. This gallant deed permitted the companies to advance, avoiding a terrific enemy fire. Despite his wounds, he continued to lead his platoon forward until ordered to the rear by his commanding officer.
*ROBERTS, HAROLD W.
Rank and organization: Corporal, U.S. Army Company A, 344th Battalion, Tank Corps.
Place and date: In the Montrebeau Woods France, October 4, 1918.
Entered service at: San Francisco, Calif.
Born: San Francisco, Calif.
His citation reads: Corporal. Roberts, a tank driver, was moving his tank into a clump of bushes to afford protection to another tank which had become disabled. The tank slid into a shell hole, 10 feet deep, filled with water, and was immediately submerged. Knowing that only 1 of the 2 men in the tank could escape, Corporal Roberts said to the gunner, "Well, only one of us can get out, and out you go," whereupon he pushed his companion through the back door of the tank and was himself drowned.
SEIBERT, LLOYD M.
Rank and organization: Sergeant, U.S. Army, Company F, 364th Infantry, 91st Division.
Place and date: Near Epinonville, France, September 26, 1918.
Entered service at: Salinas, Calif.
Born: Caledonia, Mich.
His citation reads: Suffering from illness, Sergeant. Seibert remained with his platoon and led his men with the highest courage and leadership under heavy shell and machinegun fire. With 2 other soldiers he charged a machinegun emplacement in advance of their company, he himself killing one of the enemy with a shotgun and capturing 2 others. In this encounter he was wounded, but he nevertheless continued in action, and when a withdrawal was ordered he returned with the last unit, assisting a wounded comrade. Later in the evening he volunteered and carried in wounded until he fainted from exhaustion.
WEST, CHESTER H.
Rank and organization: First Sergeant, U.S. Army, Company D, 363d Infantry, 91st Division.
Place and date: Near Bois-de-Cheppy, France, September 26, 1918.
Entered service at: Los Banos, Calif.
Born: Fort Collins, Colo.
His citation reads: While making his way through a thick fog with his automatic rifle section, his advance was halted by direct and unusual machinegun fire from 2 guns. Without aid, he at once dashed through the fire and, attacking the nest, killed 2 of the gunners, 1 of whom was an officer. This prompt and decisive hand-to-hand encounter on his part enabled his company to advance farther without the loss of a man.
Born in California, entered service or accredited elsewhere:
GUMPERTZ, SYDNEY G.
Rank and organization: First Sergeant, U.S. Army, Company E, 132d Infantry, 33d Division. Place and date: In the Bois-de-Forges, France, 29 September 1918. Entered service at: Chicago, Ill. Born: 24 October 1879, San Raphael, Calif. G.O. No.: 16, W.D., 1919.
When the advancing line was held up by machinegun fire, 1st Sgt. Gumpertz left the platoon of which he was in command and started with 2 other soldiers through a heavy barrage toward the machinegun nest. His 2 companions soon became casualties from bursting shells, but 1st Sgt. Gumpertz continued on alone in the face of direct fire from the machinegun, jumped into the nest and silenced the gun, capturing 9 of the crew.
• Entered service at: Chicago, Illinois.
• Born: October 24, 1879, San Raphael, California.
M.O.H. Recipients Also laid to rest in California:
Balch, John Henry
Pharmacist's Mate First Class, U.S. Navy. Place and date: Vierzy, France, and Somme-Py, France, July 19, and October 5, 1918. Entered service at: Kansas City, Mo. Born: January 2, 1896, Edgerton, KansasRiverside National Cemetery, Riverside, CA
Bradley, Willis Winter, Jr.
Commander, U.S. Navy. Born: 28 June 1884, Ransomville, N.Y. Appointed from: North Dakota, Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, California
Seaman, U.S. Navy. Born: 26 July 1896, Los Animas, Colo. Accredited to: Nebraska. G.O., Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, California.
To my knowledge these are all of the WW1 Medal of Honor recipients associated with California. For more information on America's Medal of Honor recipients visit:
Bill Betten, Co-Director of the California WW1 Centennial Task Force is an author and retired educator. See his biography here.