FORT HAMILTON, N.Y. – U.S. Army 1st Lt. John Earl Warren Jr. was a Brooklyn native who threw himself on an enemy grenade to save the lives of three others from injury or death on Jan. 14, 1969 in Vietnam. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously on Aug. 6, 1970 at the White House, presented by President Richard M. Nixon to his family.
The Congressional Medal of Honor is the United States' highest award for military valor in action. According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, while over 150 years have passed since its inception, the meaning behind the medal has never tarnished. Etched within are the very values that each recipient displayed in the moments that mattered—bravery, courage, sacrifice, integrity. A deep love of country and a desire to always do what is right. Laura Jowdy, Congressional Medal of Honor Society archivist and historical collections manager, said New York state has the most recipients accredited to it, over 670.
Col. Craig Martin, Fort Hamilton garrison commander, emphasized the importance of remembering the fallen and their stories, especially John Warren Jr.’s.
“The United States Army is a key component of our Nation’s profession of arms,” said Martin. “Our Army today is a professional body that provides a service to the American people. Our representative government grants us the autonomy to use lethal force on behalf of the American people because we've earned their trust. As such, it is important to us as Soldiers that we recognize and honor the level of dedication it requires for us to uphold our profession, and our Nation’s citizens must be reminded that truly, freedom isn’t free. John Warren Jr. represents the best of who we are as Americans; he knew what sacrifice he was making. John Warren Jr. is an exceptional example of those men and women of New York who chose to serve their Nation and defend our way of life. Warren’s story, along with so many others, must continue being told for our Nation to continue to understand the level of commitment our profession requires and uphold their trust in the U.S. military.”
Gloria Warren-Baskin, Warren’s only surviving immediate family member, reflected on his life, his impact, and story. He was born and raised in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, and was son to Lillian Warren, who worked for the transit authority, and John Warren, a former Soldier and a maintenance worker at a nursing home. Gloria said that the main values she and her brother learned from her parents were to be respectful of others, to be honest, and never to judge a person by the color of their skin.
“They were big on treating people how you’d like to be treated and to help people if you can,” said Gloria.
Even though their parents divorced while he was younger, family was center to his life. He grew up in a close-knit family with his mother, sister, aunts, and cousins. They spent time together at family gatherings and church activities through their Baptist faith. Although John was five years older than Gloria, he always included her and didn’t mind taking her to places that he enjoyed: handball, bowling, dancing, and going to church activities.
“What I appreciated most about him was that he treated me like I was an equal,” said Gloria. “He was my brother and I looked up to him.”
John attended Eastern District High School, and completed two years of study at Brooklyn College before he was drafted into the Army. According to Gloria, John was alright with the decision and chose to make the best of it; the family was proud of him. He attended Officer Candidate School and then Infantry Leaders Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. She recalled that he said the training was difficult, but he was proud. He then served as an executive officer at Fort Eustice, Virginia, and lived off-post with two white officers; to Gloria’s knowledge, he was treated fairly. When the Warren family visited him, they went to the officers club and felt welcomed. Even though there weren’t many officers of color, everyone seemed to like and respect him.
She believes he left for Vietnam in October 1968, and came home before leaving. As they parted ways at the airport, she told him not to be a hero; he just kept walking and didn’t look back. She said she felt it was his way of knowing he had to do what he had to do.
On the day of his passing, she and her mother went to the dentist. When they returned home, the landlord told her that two officers had come to the house and left a number for her to call. “My mother and I knew there was something wrong,” said Gloria. “After calling the number and they told her they’d come back to the house, she knew. She just dropped the phone and started crying.” Gloria called her aunts at church and asked they come over. They arrived at the same time as the officers. “So now we were all standing in the living room when they informed us of my brother’s passing. My mother and two aunts dropped. I stood there in disbelief. I think I was in shock. It didn’t really hit me until the next day.”
It took almost two weeks for his body to be received back in New York. Gloria recounted that her parents opened the coffin to be sure it was him.
“My mother never was the same after losing her only son. We all mourned his death and it took a while to function.”
Despite the tragic loss, they were proud of him, “He was a hero to our family,” she added. The family received notice from the White House that John was going to be acknowledged with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The citation reads:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. 1st Lt. Warren distinguished himself at the cost of his life while serving as a platoon leader with Company C. While moving through a rubber plantation to reinforce another friendly unit, Company C came under intense fire from a well-fortified enemy force. Disregarding his safety, 1st Lt. Warren with several of his men began maneuvering through the hail of enemy fire toward the hostile positions. When he had come to within six feet of one of the enemy bunkers and was preparing to toss a hand grenade into it, an enemy grenade was suddenly thrown into the middle of his small group. Thinking only of his men, 1st Lt. Warren fell in the direction of the grenade, thus shielding those around him from the blast. His action, performed at the cost of his life, saved three men from serious or mortal injury. 1st Lt. Warren's ultimate action of sacrifice to save the lives of his men was in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit on him, his unit, and the U.S. Army.”
John is buried at Long Island’s National Cemetery in Farmingdale. Gloria donated his medal to the Smithsonian Institution so that he wouldn’t be forgotten.
Martin added that it’s important families know their loved ones are not forgotten.
“First, I believe that both our families and fellow Soldiers should know that we do in fact serve something greater than ourselves, the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “The notion that all men and women are created equal and that we are entitled to certain freedoms including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As such, the motto of the U.S. Army is, ‘This We’ll Defend.’ Secondly, because this service is so instrumental in the preservation of our Nation, we will always venerate the service of all our Soldiers and especially those that have made the ultimate sacrifice. One of our most important responsibilities as an Army is caring for our Soldiers and their families regardless of whether they are active duty or veterans. They are ‘Soldiers for Life’ and we shall never forget!”
When asked what she thought what John may want other people to know about him, Gloria said, “He might want people to know that he was proud to be a Soldier in the United States Army and to not be afraid to help your fellow man.”