By Joe LacdanJune 27, 2018
WASHINGTON -- Pauline Conner's eyes welled up with tears as she spoke before a large audience that included her son Paul, her four grandchildren and her four great-grandchildren, Wednesday afternoon in the Pentagon.
Her husband, the late World War II veteran Garlin Murl Conner, had just been inducted into the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes. One day earlier, President Donald Trump had awarded Conner the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House.
"We did it Murl," said Pauline, her voice quivering. "No more regrets."
Lt. Garlin Conner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on January 24, 1945. Carrying a telephone and wire spool, Conner sprinted 400 yards toward a German battalion while still ailing from a hip injury. Laying in a shallow snow-covered ditch, he directed artillery onto the Germans, while his body remained partially exposed to enemy fire. When enemy soldiers closed in on him, he accepted his possible death, and directed artillery on his own position, until the Germans retreated into the forest. Conner's leadership resulted in the deaths of 50 German soldiers, 150 casualties and the destruction of the tanks.
"I am amazed," Pauline said. "He was so brave in a horrific battlefield. And he never spoke much of it. He was a humble man, and is still my hero."
That Conner never spoke of his actions during WWII was not unusual -- it's common among many who served in that war.
"Like many heroes of his generation he never talked about what he did," said Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. James McConville. "His quiet exterior masked a tough inner core."
For decades, Conner had refused to apply for the Medal of Honor, despite encouragement from his former commander, Maj. Gen. Lloyd Ramsey. Conner had already earned four Silver Stars, three Purple Hearts, a bronze star and the Distinguished Service Cross.
"He said he didn't need another medal," Pauline said. "And his life's focus should be on living a faithful, full life in Kentucky. And that he did."
Instead of pursuing additional recognition for his activities during WWII, Conner focused instead on his family and his farm. And after suffering a heart attack in 1979, he discovered a new purpose: helping veterans in his community. He and Pauline helped veterans who had not properly filed for their pensions or veteran's benefits. The couple would travel to neighboring counties in southern Kentucky and met with veterans at their homes and in courthouses.
Pauline estimated that together they contacted possibly thousands of veterans, helping them file their paperwork. It's something Pauline continues to do today, when physically able.
"What really struck me about the Conner family was their ability to continue to serve veterans," said Heather French-Henry, who serves as deputy commissioner at the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs. "The Conner family has been staunch advocates for veterans since Murl came back from World War II."
In the fall of 1996, Pauline and Garlin Conner met with former Army Green Beret Richard Chilton. Chilton had contacted the couple after learning that his own uncle might have served with Conner in Italy. Pauline allowed Chilton to review Garlin's war records. Chilton said he was impressed with what he saw in those records, and was convinced that Conner merited the Medal of Honor. He asked the couple if he could pursue that recognition on Conner's behalf.
Conner, ill with Parkinson's disease and kidney failure, could no longer speak or write. But Pauline said her husband's tears gave Chilton the best answer.
"I said I would do all I can," said Chilton, who attended the Pentagon ceremony. "I didn't know what I would do, I didn't know how long it would take."
Chilton, Pauline and others started an effort that would eventually garner support from seven generals, Congressman Ed Whitfield, Attorney Dennis Shepherd, French-Henry and others. That long effort ultimately resulted in Conner being awarded the Medal of Honor.
"I know it's been a long road," said Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper. "But we are finally able to pay Murl the recognition he deserves."
Pauline has said that during their 53 years together, Garlin Conner didn't talk much at all about his military service in WWII. Instead, he focused on his life in Kentucky.
"Our beautiful life together was simple," Pauline said. "Our calling was having a family, building a home and a farm; and helping family and friends -- especially veterans who returned home with hardships. Veterans were so special to Murl."
Pauline encouraged others to continue to pursue veteran stories so they would not be lost.
"Continued learning about Murl's story and others reminds us the spirit of the American Soldier never dies," Pauline said. "Challenge everyone to learn more about their family's military history ... even if it takes you to some dusty old boxes stuck away in dark closets."
If not for Chilton's pursuit of a veteran's story, for instance, Conner's war records may have remained in the living room closet, and the details of his harrowing bravery may never have been fully realized.
The Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon contains the names of every Medal of Honor recipient. Garland Conner's name will now be permanently enshrined there along with the names of nearly 3,500 others who also earned the honor.