Across Yale’s historic campus are monuments heralding its contributions to national service; etched names of fallen graduates line the walls of Woolsey Rotunda and a cenotaph dedicated to the fallen World War I “Men of Yale” occupies Beinecke Plaza. However, Yale’s institutional memory of its fallen students remains inadequate. For one, there continues to be no monument, nor even a list, of Yale’s Medal of Honor, or MOH, recipients either constructed or published. In doing so, the University neglects an award that symbolizes some of the most selfless acts imaginable and has only been bestowed a mere 3,511 times since 1861. In fact, more Americans have received the Rhodes Scholarship than the Medal of Honor. Two years ago, Captain Paul Mawn, USN (ret.), published a comprehensive list of Harvard’s 18 recipients of the Medal of Honor. He claimed that Harvard produced the most recipients of any civilian university and that its community should be proud of this distinction. Similarly, Princeton’s Alumni Weekly published a special edition for its MOH recipients in 2010. At the very least, it is now apparent that Yale must recognize its own students who have demonstrated courage above and beyond the call of duty. Instituting proper recognition for these recipients will not only inspire future Yalies, but offer a point of pride into an often overlooked part of the institution’s past.
Based on obituaries, service records and secondary literature, we believe there to be six Medal of Honor recipients who have attended Yale — two from the Civil War, one from the Indian Wars, one from World War I and two from World War II. As college graduates, they all commissioned as officers and two died on the front lines.
Yale’s first awardee, Maj. Gen. Wager Swayne ’56, received his medal for leading a regiment during the Second Battle of Corinth in 1862. He later became the effective governor of Alabama during the Reconstruction Era and oversaw the Freedmen’s Bureau’s efforts to establish new schools for African Americans in the state. 2nd Lt. William Simonds LAW ’65, enlisted in the 25th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry and distinguished himself at the 1863 Battle of Irish Bend. He later served as a congressman from 1889-91. Brigadier Gen. George Baird ’63 left Yale to fight in the Civil War where he served as a colonel of the 32nd United States Colored Infantry. He would ultimately be recognized for “distinguished gallantry” during the Indian Wars in 1877. 2nd Lt. Ralph Talbot ’20 became the first Marine Corps aviator to receive the Medal of Honor for his role in daring air raids over France and Belgium during World War I. While he survived all of these engagements, he was killed on Oct. 25, 1918, when, during a motor test on the Belgian Front, his plane crashed into a high embankment and burst into flames. This happened just a month before the war’s formal conclusion.
In World War II, Maj. Henry Elrod ’27 single-handedly attacked a flight of 22 enemy planes and became the first American to sink a warship from a fighter aircraft. After his plane was rendered inoperable, he would fight alongside U.S. Army forces on Wake Island until he was killed on Dec. 23, 1941. Cmdr. Arthur Preston ’35, Yale’s most recent recipient, trained future President John F. Kennedy while serving as a patrol torpedo boat instructor and led a dangerous water rescue mission in Indonesia through 2 ½ hours of Japanese gunfire, minefields and shelling in 1944.
Other recipients have some ties to the University, including Maj. Everett Pope, who took a Japanese language class in 1945, and Gen. Leonard Wood, whose brain remains preserved at the Yale School of Medicine. However, these individuals did not complete at least one semester at either Yale College or the graduate schools and are thus not considered alumni.
We recognize that Yale has a rich history of service to the country, from the Oval Office to hospitals and classrooms. But, to walk around campus without remembering how some Yalies received this extraordinary distinction is a disservice to the University’s community. These six individuals, who, at the risk of their lives, displayed nearly unparalleled heroism, are worth remembering. Perhaps, in the near future, we may witness Yalies walk past another memorial on campus — one that would provide a fitting tribute to their school’s Medal of Honor recipients. By doing so, we would preserve these stories of forgotten citizens who embody the best of our institution’s mission: “For God, for Country, and for Yale.”