The Georgia Military Veterans’ Hall of Fame (GMVHOF) has announced the eighteen Inductees for the first annual class of military heroes. The induction ceremony will be on Friday evening, 22 November at the Doubletree Hotel in Columbus. Please go to the GMVHOF web site at http://www.GMVHOF.org for more details.
There are seven Medal of Honor (MOH) recipients from three different branches of service. Probably the rarest inductee is Civil War recipient U.S. Navy Gunner’s Mate George Leland of Savannah. He received his MOH during the battle of Charleston Harbor in 1863 while under direct fire and attempting to free the USS Lehigh, an ironclad monitor that had run aground. Two of the honorees are from Newnan and both received the MOH during the Vietnam conflict. Air Force Colonel Joe Jackson and Marine Major Stephen Pless each voluntarily landed their aircraft in enemy controlled areas to rescue Soldiers that were facing certain death.
Two other men to receive the MOH shared the same last name and were both Marines. General Ray Davis hailed from Fitzgerald and earned his MOH in Korea as he led his battalion in savage hand-to-hand fighting against a numerically superior enemy force. Sergeant Rodney Davis from Macon earned his MOH in Vietnam by sacrificing his life for his men by leaping on an exploding grenade. The fourth Marine honoree with the MOH is WWII Veteran Henry Elrod from Ashburn. As an aviator on Wake Island, he fought gallantly in the air until his aircraft was disable then he inspirationally led others in a ground defense until he was mortally wounded.
Air Force Captain Hilliard Wilbanks of Cornelia is the final recipient of the MOH in this year’s class. He was killed in action in Vietnam while flying an unarmed small airplane and firing his personal weapon on a large enemy force in order to divert them from over running a much smaller force of Army Rangers and Vietnamese soldiers.
A third inductee from Newnan is Johnny Calhoun. In Vietnam he was a member of the secret Army Special Forces group known as SOG. As a leader for a six man team deep behind enemy lines, they were discovered by a large enemy force. In an unhesitating selfless act, Johnny voluntarily sacrificed his life in order that his team might escape and live. His remains have never been recovered. For his actions he was awarded this nation’s second highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC).
Retired Army Ranger Colonel Ralph Puckett fought in two wars, Korea and Vietnam and received two DSCs and numerous other awards during his thirty year career. Another retired Soldier, 95 year old Vince Melillo fought in WWII and was one of the original Merrill’s Marauders. He then served in Korea and Vietnam. Both Puckett and Melillo live in Columbus and are still very active in supporting young Rangers at Fort Benning.
Wendall Jones of Tifton was just sixteen when he managed to enlist in the Navy at the beginning of WWII. He hit the beach of Normandy at the ripe old age of seventeen. For the next three years of the war in Europe he somehow escaped death on many occasions but not without many wounds while performing almost superhuman feats of bravery.
Two of the more recognizable names on the list are Army Major General David Grange and Army Colonel Ben Purcell. Both of them received multiple Silver Stars, the nation’s third highest award for valor, plus many other awards during service in Vietnam. Ben Purcell, a native of Clarksville, was held as a Prisoner of War by the North Vietnamese Army for over five years. They are both graduates of North Georgia University in Dahlonega.
Rounding out the eighteen people to be honored are men who have dedicated their lives to serving and or made great achievements. One such man is retired Sergeant Major of the Army William Connelly of Monticello. He is one of a handful of Soldiers ever to be named the highest ranking enlisted person in the United States Army. Tommy Clack of Decatur sacrificed three of his limbs in combat in Vietnam and was medically retired from the Army. He has continued to serve in various capacities assisting Veterans for over forty years.
There are three more inductees noted for service to their fellow citizens. The Honorable Pete Wheeler originally from Albany is an Army WWII Veteran and has been the Director of the Department of Veterans Service for the state of Georgia for over 50 years. Also being inducted is John Yates of Griffin, an Army WWII Veteran, State Congressman, and Chairman of the Defense & Veterans Affairs Committee for the state of Georgia. Allan Imes, also from Griffin, is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and Vietnam Veteran who for decades, transformed hundreds of boys and girls into young men and women while in charge of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Griffin High School.