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In the United States, the Medal of Honor is 150 years old today. It is the highest military decoration, reflecting great service and sacrifice. Of the more than 3,400 recipients, fewer than 85 are still alive.


Among them is Hershel Williams, who served as a Marine corporal in the Second World War.

HERSHEL WILLIAMS: The day I received the Medal of Honor - on October the 5th, 1945 - I had no concept of it. I had never heard of it. Why was I selected, and I'm living - and others, who gave their lives, weren't selected?

WERTHEIMER: Williams considers himself the medal's caretaker for those who did not come home. He was recognized for his actions against the Japanese during the battle of Iwo Jima.

WILLIAMS: My commanding officer asked me, as the last flame-thrower operator that he had in his company - because the others had either been killed or wounded - if I thought I could something about some of the pillboxes.

MONTAGNE: Hershel Williams could. In the face of intense enemy fire, he went after the Japanese pillbox defenses, one by one, killing the soldiers inside the fortified positions.

WERTHEIMER: Such acts of bravery occur in every war. Colonel Jack Jacobs served in Vietnam early in his career. He was a lieutenant and an adviser to a battalion of the South Vietnamese army when on March 9th, 1968, his unit came under heavy enemy fire.

JACK JACOBS: I was badly wounded; we're getting fired at continuously. And despite all that, what goes through your mind is the understanding that if you don't do something - because nobody else can - then everything is lost.

WERTHEIMER: Shrapnel tore through the top of Jacobs' head, but he soldiered on.

MONTAGNE: He ordered his unit to withdraw to a defensive perimeter. He kept returning to the battlefield, under fire, to rescue others. For his actions, President Richard Nixon awarded him the Medal of Honor.

JACOBS: It was a big surprise, first of all. And second, it was a tremendous honor that carries with it the burden of - and a happy burden, too, I might add - of representing all those men and women who served and who gave us freedom, and will do it in the future.

MONTAGNE: Along with 142 others, the portraits of Colonel Jack Jacobs and Corporal Hershel Williams are featured in a special anniversary edition of the book "Medal of Honor."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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