If you’re ever fortunate enough to speak with a Medal of Honor recipient at some point in your life, avoid at all costs suggesting that the honor was “won” by the individual. You’ll politely, but sternly, be corrected.
No one “wins” the Medal of Honor, the way one does a baseball game or a singing contest. The award is bestowed for bravery shown in the crucible of battle, and is almost always in recognition of action taken to save lives and defeat the enemy.
A number of those who have received the honor never had the chance to know it. Their courage came with a price — their lives.
Cheshire is unique for a small, quiet New England town. It counts two of its former residents as members of this special club. Eri Woodbury, a sergeant in the Union Army during the Civil War, received the award for courage shown during the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia in 1864. The other is Harvey C. “Barney” Barnum.
Most residents of Cheshire are probably familiar with Barnum, at least by reputation. Despite no longer living in town, Barnum has kept close ties with many in his hometown, and has been generous in offering support to groups and individuals who wish to continue honoring all veterans of the military.
Barnum is still very much a part of this community.
That’s why the recent announcement that work has begun on the warship that will eventually bear Barnum’s name comes as such a source of pride for Cheshire. It honors not only the man himself, but the place from which he sprung.
Barnum has made service his life’s work. After two tours in Vietnam, he stayed in the Marine Corps and continued to rise in the ranks, at one point serving as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Manpower and Reserve Affairs), a position he held from 2001 to 2008.
But it is that moment in December of 1965 for which he will always be remembered.
Most of us at some point wonder how we’d react in a life-or-death moment. Few of us are actually ever asked to answer that question. Barnum did. He was forced to confront the very real possibility that December 18, 1965, would be his last on Earth, and in the midst of that chaos, in the midst of that reality, he performed brilliantly.
The account of what happened that day is worthy of more words and approbation than can be afforded here. Anyone unfamiliar with what Barnum did that day — leading troops after their commander had been killed and both directing a counterattack and securing air support to evacuate wounded soldiers — should take the time to find one of the many accounts of those harrowing hours. It is well worth your time.
Yet, it’s easy to forget that the story of Barnum’s courage is the lived experience of an individual. Barnum mixed all of his training with every ounce of his bravery to help his unit fight off an ambush and survive to fight another day. As is the case with every single Medal of Honor recipient, such heroics are worthy of our remembrance and praise, even after decades or centuries have passed.
And it’s certainly worthy of a name on the side of a warship, an honor that not only acknowledges Barnum’s heroics in December of 1965, but also his commitment to his country every single day afterwards.
In the years to come, those who hear the name “Barnum” may think of the ship rather than the individual. Such is the way with military designations. While most people recognize the name Fort Knox in Kentucky, few may recall that it was named after famous Revolutionary War General Henry Knox, who eventually served as U.S. Secretary of War.
Yet, when Cheshire residents hear of the USS Harvey Barnum, they’ll immediately think of the town’s favorite son, Harvey “Barney” Barnum, who is still bringing pride to his hometown.