Henry A. Courtney

Slideshow

Previous Next

Henry Alexius Courtney, Jr., of Duluth, Minnesota served as a major with the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He was posthumously awarded the nation's highest honor for valor above and beyond the call of duty, Medal of Honor, for gallantry displayed during action on Okinawa Shima, Ryukyu Islands on May 14 and 15, 1945. The citation for the award reads: "For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Executive Officer of the 2d Battalion, 22nd Marines, 6th Marine Div., in action against enemy Japanese forces on Okinawa Shima in the Ryukyu Islands 14 and 15 May, 1945. Ordered to hold for the night in static defense behind Sugar Loaf Hill after leading the forward elements of his command in a prolonged fire fight, Maj. Courtney weighed the effect of a hostile night counterattack against the tactical value of an immediate Marine assault, resolved to initiate the assault and promptly obtained permission to advance and seize the forward slope of the hill. Quickly explaining the situation to his small remaining force, he declared his personal intention of moving forward and then proceeded on his way, boldly blasting nearby cave positions and neutralizing enemy guns as he went. Inspired by his courage, every man followed without hesitation, and together the intrepid Marines braved terrific concentration of gunfire to skirt the hill on the right and reached the reverse slope." "Temporarily halting, Maj. Courtney sent guides to the rear for more ammunition and possible replacements. Subsequently reinforced by 26 men and an LVT load of grenades, he determined to storm the crest of the hill and crush any planned counterattack before it could gain sufficient momentum to effect a breakthrough. Leading his men by example rather than by command, he pushed ahead with unrelenting aggressiveness, hurling grenades into cave openings on the slope with devastating effect. Upon reaching the crest and observing large numbers of Japanese forming for action less than 100 yards away, he instantly attacked, waged a furious battle and succeeded in killing many of the enemy and in forcing the remainder to take cover in the caves. Determined to hold, he ordered his men to dig in and, coyly disregarding the continuous hail of flying enemy shrapnel to rally his weary troops, tirelessly aided casualties and assigned his men to more advantageous positions. Although instantly killed by a hostile mortar burst while moving among his men, Maj. Courtney, by his astute military acumen, indomitable leadership and decisive action in the face of overwhelming odds, had contributed essentially to the success of the Okinawa campaign. His great personal valor throughout sustained and enhanced the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country." Maj. Courtney is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Duluth.

2015 Mike Colalillo Medal of Honor Scholarship Essay on Henry Courtney

Morgan Young

Mike Colalillo Medal of Honor Scholarship

Henry Alexius Courtney, Jr.

Mike Colalillo is well known amongst most Duluthians; he served in the European theater, and was one of the two Duluthians to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II, which is the nation’s highest military honor. However, many do not know about Henry A. Courtney Jr., who served in the Pacific theater. Courtney was born on January 6th, 1916 in Duluth, Minnesota. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota, and later his law degree from Loyola University Law School in Chicago. After graduating he was permitted to practice in at his father’s law firm in Duluth in 1940. He was educated and had a career lined up, yet he selflessly decided to join the Marine Corps the same year.

            Henry Courtney went in as a second lieutenant commissioned officer in 1940. He would serve in Iceland, become sick with malaria, come back home to the United States to recover, but he still wanted to fight for his country; he would then see the heaviest fighting in the Pacific theater in Guadalcanal, and Okinawa.4 The Japanese were on high ground, shooting down at the U.S. Marines, and when Courtney went up the hill, he saw how disorganized it was, and got permission to go up the hill.4 A fellow soldier said that Courtney didn’t say, “men, let’s move out,” he said, “men, follow me.” By charging up the hill to execute a counter attack against the Japanese with the forty or so men he brought with him, the result was the saved lives of the rest of his unit below. The marines would lose and retake Sugar Loaf Hill several times before they finally occupied it. One of Courtney’s nephews claimed that in the final stage of the Pacific war, the battle of Okinawa was considered for if or when the United States were to invade Japan, the month before the bombs were dropped government concluded that because the fighting on Okinawa was so dreadful, that it would be wise not to invade.

            If the Marines’ disadvantageous situation wasn’t bad enough, a steady rain began to fall on May 14th, which turned the flat ground in front of Sugar Loaf into a foot-sucking marshland.1 This made it feel like the attack on Sugar Loaf was in slow motion, with men lifting their sinking feet out one at a time, all while being overwhelmed unmercifully by Japanese fire.1 Major Courtney knew that a Japanese counterattack would overwhelm them, so instead of waiting for it, he took the fight to them. One of the men who went with up Sugar Loaf Hill, Private First Class Eldon L. Kastler, USMCR, provided this statement on June 10, 1945, about the conduct of Major Henry A. Courtney, Jr.:

On 14 May, 1945, I was a squad leader in the first platoon of F Company, Second Battalion, Twenty Second Marines, Sixth Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces Okinawa Shima, Ryuku Rhetto. In the afternoon of 14 May, 1945, our platoon had occupied Sugar Loaf Hill. When the situation became such that we were losing men as a result of enemy fire and our ammunition carriers were pinned down and could not get to us in order for us to continue the fire fight, our platoon leader decided to bring us back off the Hill. Bringing those of our wounded we could carry with us, we withdrew. I was with the platoon sergeant when he went to the observation post to report the situation- our platoon leader had been hit on the way back while he stood fast to cover our withdrawal with his fire. Our platoon sergeant made his report directly to the battalion commander, and then both the platoon sergeant and I, with some others, went back to where units of F Company and G Company were in the lines. Major Courtney was there giving the officers instructions as to how he wanted an assault made of Sugar Loaf Hill. We were then on the reverse slope of the Hill in a position of defilade. When the platoon sergeant told Major Courtney that the platoon had received fire from the right flank of the Hill and that a number of Japanese were moving up to the Hill from that direction, Major Courtney stopped talking and deliberated for a short while. He then said that we could probably withdraw, tie into the lines, and hold and possible Japanese counter attack, but that if we went up on top of the Hill, we could kill a lot of Japanese, be in a better position to break up the attack, and could thereby save a lot of Marines’ lives. When he said that, he issued orders for everyone to get grenades- that we might need them. Then he stood up and said, “Let’s go.” And then he started off ahead of all of us, slightly crouched forward, and began throwing his grenades into caves when enemy fire came out of them. We all followed him up the hill. He had requested a break in illumination in order for us to get over the crest without observation. But there was still light enough for all of us to see him. He moved on over the crest of the hill and all of us followed him. When we got there, we started digging in where Major Courtney directed. We were then receiving heavy enemy grenade, mortar, and small arms fire, but Major Courtney never ceased to expose himself in going from man to man and being sure he dug in in the right place. When the illumination went back on, we all could see a lot of Japanese crawling up the forward slope of the Hill, making a frontal assault on our position. When we saw them, Major Courtney immediately threw his grenades and shouted for all of us to do so. We followed with a barrage of grenades that hit among the Japanese because they were scarcely fifty yards in front and below us. Then Major Courtney went from man to man, all up and down the line, while we were still under heavy fire, encouraging all of us and telling us just where to direct our fire. There was at that time a great deal of noise and excitement because we were fighting hard, and I didn’t know exactly when the Major was hit. But someone told us that the Major was dead. When I heard that, I was personally determined to hold the Hill. And I knew every other man felt the same way, because we did hold it although the enemy fire was very heavy and there were many casualties. We kept on fighting, and we broke up the Japanese counter-attack. Major Courtney showed us the greatest courage and bravery any of us had ever seen. If it had not been for him, we never could have fought as hard as we did, and the Japanese counter-attack would have struck our lines with full force.2

 

The Marine Corps Base Camp Courtney in Okinawa, Japan, where he was originally buried, opened in 1956, and is named in his honor.3 It is still in use to this day. Courtney's parents received his Medal of Honor on December 30, 1947, from Commandant of the Marine Corps General Alexander A. Vandegrift, and in 1955, his mother christened the destroyer escort U.S.S. Courtney (DE-1021) with the traditional bottle of champagne.3 The ship could carry 170 soldiers, weighed 1,877 tons, was 314 feet and six inches long, the top flank speed was 27 knots, and was in commission from 1956 to 1973, when it was finally sold for scrap on June 17th.5 The piece of Courtney’s life that is still missing, John J. Cella, who works alongside with the St. Louis County Historical Society, is trying to locate Courtney’s Medal of Honor so he can hang it in a place of honor that it deserves.

            I see a lot of myself in Courtney; I am very appreciative to have been so well educated throughout my life and have the opportunity and means to further educate myself, yet I still want to do the humble thing and join the Air National Guard. Although I am sure I will not be as honorable as Courtney, I do feel much more inspired and motivated to join the military, as Henry Alexius Courtney Jr. is but only one of the grandest examples of why we should never forget any soldier in any war who fights for our country.

Notes

1. Allan C. Bevilacqua "Okinawa, May 1945 Sugar Loaf Hill." Leatherneck, May 1, 2013. Accessed November 13, 2015.

2. Eldon L. Kastler Written Statement by author. June 10, 1945.

3. Steve Kuchera "Exhibit Celebrates Duluth Marine Who Posthumously Received Medal of Honor." Duluth News Tribune. April 27, 2013. Accessed November 12, 2015.

4. "Medal of Honor Exhibit Celebration, at the Depot, Major Henry Courtney, Jr Duluth Minnesota EXTRA." YouTube. May 11, 2013. Accessed November 14, 2015.

5. "U.S.S. COURTNEY." USS COURTNEY (DE-1021) Deployments & History. Accessed November 16, 2015.

Bibliography

Bevilacqua, Allan C. "Okinawa, May 1945 Sugar Loaf Hill." Leatherneck, May 1, 2013. Accessed November 13, 2015.

Kastler, Eldon L. Written Statement by author. June 10, 1945.

Kuchera, Steve. "Exhibit Celebrates Duluth Marine Who Posthumously Received Medal of Honor." Duluth News Tribune. April 27, 2013. Accessed November 12, 2015.

"Medal of Honor Exhibit Celebration, at the Depot, Major Henry Courtney, Jr Duluth Minnesota EXTRA." YouTube. May 11, 2013. Accessed November 14, 2015.

"U.S.S. COURTNEY." USS COURTNEY (DE-1021) Deployments & History. Accessed November 16, 2015.

Site by 3FIVE