Eighty-nine-year-old Pauline Conner rose from her wheelchair to give President Donald Trump a big hug and a kiss on the cheek Tuesday before she received the posthumous award of the Medal of Honor on behalf of her husband of 53 years, Army 1st Lt. Garlin Murl Conner.
A beaming Trump said "I like her," drawing laughter from Pauline and the estimated 250 guests in the White House East Room for the ceremony.
He added: "She told me she voted for Trump."
Earlier, Trump had said it was his privilege to present Pauline with the Medal of Honor for her late husband.
For Pauline Conner and her family, the ceremony marked the formal end to the 22-year battle to see her husband's Distinguished Service Cross from World War II upgraded to the nation's highest award for valor.
The Army's Board for Correction of Military Records twice rejected the application for the upgrade and a federal court ruled that the statute of limitations for consideration had passed.
The Army relented when letters from three of Conner's fellow service members from the 3rd Infantry Division surfaced in the National Archives, attesting to his astonishing actions on Jan. 24, 1945, against an overwhelming German force near the French town of Houssen.
If he were present, Murl, as he was known, "would feel highly honored," Pauline Conner told Pentagon reporters Monday.
"Yes he would. I just wish he was here to get it," she said. "He earned it. He's the one who earned it. I just wish so badly he was here -- that [they had] done it when he was here."
"My husband was a very humble man," she said of Conner, who died at age 79 in 1998. "I'm honored to represent him. It's not about me, it's about him, and he was my hero. He was for 53 years and he still is since he's been gone these 20 years."
Granting the award enabled the late farmer and soldier from the hill country of Clinton County, Kentucky, to "take his rightful place in the eternal chronicle of American valor," Trump said.
Conner was born on June 2, 1919, and enlisted in the Army on March 1, 1941. He was a member of Company K, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division.
Through World War II, his 10 campaigns and 28 months on the front lines included Algeria-French Morocco, Tunisia; Sicily, Naples-Foggia, Anzio, Rome-Arno; Southern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, Central Europe, the Army said.
Conner's awards and decorations included the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star with three Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters, the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart with two Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters, the Army Good Conduct Medal, and the American Defense Service Medal.
He also received the American Campaign Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Bronze Arrowhead and two Silver Service Stars, the World War II Victory Medal, the Presidential Unit Citation with one Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Expert Infantryman Badge, the French Croix de Guerre, the French Fourragere and the Honorable Service Lapel Button-WWII, the Army said.
Conner's Mad Dash To The Front
In his remarks, Trump said that Conner "came from a farm near Albany, Kentucky. Murl was one of 11 children. He grew up during the Great Depression and dropped out of school after the 8th grade to help provide for his family."
In the Army, "for 28 months straight, he fought on the front lines in 10 campaigns. He was wounded seven times, but he couldn't stop," Trump said. "He loved it and he loved our country. On the shores of Sicily, the beaches of Anzio, and the snow-covered mountains of France, he fought with everything he had to defeat the Nazi menace."
In January 1945, Conner was recuperating in a field hospital from a hip wound but he slipped away to rejoin his unit. Lt. Col. Lloyd Ramsey, his battalion commander, assigned him to be his S-2 intelligence officer to keep him out of battle, but Conner volunteered for one last mission.
German tanks backed by about 600 infantry were advancing in an effort to split the American forces. Conner grabbed a phone and a spool of wire. He ran out in front of the American lines and took up a position in a shallow irrigation ditch to spot for the artillery.
In Trump's telling, Conner "ran 400 yards, dodging shrapnel, bullets, shells everywhere, artillery trying to hit him. They saw him; they couldn't get him. He was going every different way. He looked like an NFL star, all the while laying telephone wire wherever he went."
"In the last attack, swarms of German soldiers rushed forward. When they were nearly on top of Lieutenant Conner, he ordered fire on his own position -- exactly where he was -- courageously choosing to face death in order to save his battalion and achieve victory for freedom. And those people that were with him, many of them now gone, said it was the single bravest act they've ever seen," Trump said.
Conner's medal citation said that "by his incredible heroism and disregard for his own life, Conner stopped the enemy advance. The artillery he expertly directed under constant enemy fire killed approximately 50 German soldiers and wounded at least 100 more, thus preventing heavy casualties in his battalion."
Conner's Return Home: A Parade And Then Silence
Back home in Clinton County, Conner returned to farming. He and Pauline worked a 36-acre spread where they raised cattle, and grew corn and tobacco. They also quietly fought to get other veterans their pension benefits.
In their Buick sedan, they drove around Kentucky to meet with disabled vets. Pauline did the paperwork.
Everybody in the county abutting the Tennessee line, it seemed, knew about Conner's remarkable World War II record. They also knew it was pointless to ask him about it.
One of his few public statements came at the welcome home parade for him in Albany, Kentucky, at the Clinton County Courthouse in May 1945, which was attended by Sgt. Alvin York, the Medal of Honor recipient from World War I.
They were distant relatives by marriage and would become friends. York would come to visit, Pauline said, but the two never talked about war around her.
In a 10-minute speech at the Courthouse, Conner tried to convey what the troops had experienced in Europe, but he did not touch on his own actions.
"It gives me great pleasure to be able to come out here today. I am not a speaker and did not come out here to make a speech, but will try to explain to you a small part of the war of Europe and some of the things I saw," Conner said in the speech, which was published on the Defense Department's website.
He spoke of the amphibious landing at Anzio in Italy, and the desperate fight to hold off the Germans seeking to drive them back into the sea.
"I went ashore at Anzio the morning of Jan. 22, 1944. The Germans there were surprisingly strong. We spent 120 days at Anzio. The weather there was, in some ways, worse than the enemy. It rained most of the time and was rather cold at that time of year," he said.
"The men at the front, and that was where I spent all of my time, lived in a very difficult condition -- holes or dugouts would become filled with water. As a result, we stayed wet most of the time."
"During the big counterattack from Feb. 29 until March 3, inclusive, was the worst we had. The enemy fought hard to dislodge us from the beach head but our men fought hard and gallantly and we proved that we had come to stay," he said.
For the rest of his life, Conner would decline to be drawn out on the war. When he was asked, he would say "I'd done what I had to do, and that's all there is to it," according to an Army news release.
He was even reticent with his son, Paul, who told the Army that when he questioned his father, he would get the same response: "We went over there, we did what we had to do, and it needs to stay over there."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.