Aircraft—helicopter…4…0….7…Mike…Charlie…departing the ramp north bound…
Unicom—have a safe trip…
The Medal of Honor
All of the stories I have written have taken place during my tenure as airport manager. This one does not, it originated from Big Sandy and my brother, Larry Joe Cox, was my pilot but it happened while I was working at Martin County Coal in the 90’s.
It was also when the Warfield Liberty Festival was a pretty big event in Martin County. Dolly Adkins, Lori Workman, Gloria Cox (my step-mother), Bonnie Triplett, Patsey Spears, Gladys Hinkle and my sister-in-law, Angie (Mullins) Runyon pretty well ran the show. Me, Ronald Workman and Billy Chapman, the three guys on the committee just did what we were told to do.
During one of the meetings, Angie, who was in charge of the parade, informed us that she had contacted a Medal of Honor recipient and he had agreed to be the grand marshal of our parade. The only thing I knew about the Medal of Honor was that it was our nation’s highest award. I knew nothing else. Over the next couple of weeks I got an education on the award and a tremendous amount of respect for those who have received it.
“Gary Wayne, this guy lives in Wurtland, Kentucky and he would prefer not to drive himself, the only thing he requested was someone to pick him up and take him back home after the parade. I volunteered you,” Angie said with a grin.
“I can do that, I think it would be interesting to talk with someone who has won our nations highest military award.”
While at work the next day and getting ready to load one of those many coal trains that used to come out of Wolf Creek, I was telling my friend, Ron Wicker, who was recording railroad cars numbers for shipment, about my assignment.
Ron said, “Give me his name, I’ll go Google it and when I bring back the waybill, we can see how this guy got the Medal of Honor.”
That was the first time I had ever heard the word ‘Google’. After Ron explained what Google meant, I said, ” HIs name is Ernie West, from Wurtland, Kentucky and he served in the Korean War.”
When Ron returned with the waybill he said, “Gary, I got the information on your guy, seems all the Medal of Honor people are issued a citation of why they are given the award. This Is what I have learned about him.
Ernest E. West – Medal of Honor Citation
Pfc. West distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy. He voluntarily accompanied a contingent to locate and destroy a reported enemy outpost. Nearing the objective, the patrol was ambushed and suffered numerous casualties. Observing his wounded leader lying in an exposed position, Pfc. West ordered the troops to withdraw, then braved intense fire to reach and assist him. While attempting evacuation, he was attacked by three hostile soldiers employing grenades and small-arms fire. Quickly shifting his body to shelter the officer, he killed the assailants with his rifle, then carried the helpless man to safety. He was critically wounded and lost an eye in this action, but courageously returned through withering fire and bursting shells to assist the wounded. While evacuating two comrades, he closed with and killed three more of the foe. Pfc. West indomitable spirit, consummate valor, and intrepid actions inspired all who observed him, reflect the highest credit on himself, and uphold the honored traditions of the military service.
“Wow, Ron, can you imagine going through something like that and probably in your early twenties?”
That afternoon I showed the citation to Larry Joe and told him the Saturday I was going to drive to Wurtland and get Ernie, I asked him if he wanted to go along.
Larry Joe said, “Give me that paper, I’ll be flying Mr. Blankenship (Don Blankenship Massey Energy CEO) tomorrow and I’ll ask him if we can fly in the Massey helicopter to Ashland’s Airport and pick-up Ernie, (Massey had just purchased a new Bell 407) I bet he will approve it. If you have his number see if he would be willing to fly instead of drive but wait until I get approval.”
Mr. Blankenship approved it and Ernie said he would love to fly in a helicopter so the time was set for pick-up at the Ashland Regional Airport.
When Larry Joe and I arrived, about 30 minutes early, Ernie was standing outside the airport lobby waiting on us. Larry Joe told me to get him and escort him to the helicopter for safety and for me to get in the back so Ernie could have a better view on the way to Warfield. I was shocked ay how small of a guy Ernie was, probably no taller that 5’6″ and probably didn’t weigh 150 pounds. He was dressed in a navy blue suit, white shirt and light blue tie. His face was slightly disfigured, from taking shrapnel from a grenade and his left eye was missing. While helping him into the front seat, buckling him up and putting his headset on, I noticed on the lapel of his coat a decorative military pin with two rifles on it. I wondered if that could be the Medal of Honor?
As Larry Joe departed the ramp he flew directly over the Ohio River before turning toward Warfield. Ernie knew how to use the voice activated headsets and he was a totally comfortable passenger. He was asking Larry Joe all kinds of questions about the helicopter and it was obvious Ernie had been in a few helicopters before. I just sat in the back and listened to the conversation and didn’t think I was going to get to ask Ernie any questions. Seemed like Ernie and Larry Joe had bonded so quickly so we were nearly half way to Warfield when the the talk slowed down.
“Ernie, while buckling you in, I noticed some kind of medal on your lapel, is that the Medal of Honor?
“Oh no, that’s my marksmanship pin, the Medal of Honor is worn as a necklace, I’m going to toss this back to you, the way I’m buckled in I can’t see in the back,” Ernie said.
While Ernie was talking I saw he was getting something out of his coat pocket, he held it up to show me and asked if I was ready to catch it, then tossed it toward me. Just like that, I was holding the highest military award our country bestows. It was actually kind of humbling to have that in my hands, that feeling only increased as Ernie educated me about the Medal of Honor.
“Obviously, you have never seen one, most people haven’t either. The Medal of Honor can only be legally displayed by the person who it is awarded to. Notice how I said awarded and not won, you are never supposed to say I won the Medal of Honor, there is no competition for this award. It can only be awarded with verification by two or more sources and then it has to go before a military board to decide. When we get in Warfield if you put that around your neck and walk through town you could be fined thousands of dollars for impersonating a Metal of Honor recipient. I’m the only one who can wear it and when I die, I’m leaving it in my will to my daughter and she will be the only one allowed to display it, not wear it but put in some kind of display, in my honor. It’s actually harder to live with this medal than it is to be awarded it. I bet ninety percent of the people who possess this medal don’t think they are worthy of it. Over half of these medals are awarded posthumously. Those and all the others who never made it back from the wars, are this country’s true heroes.”
“When we get to Warfield the only time I will wear it is in the parade. I will show it to anyone who wants to see it but I prefer to only show it to veterans. It will stay in my pocket until someone asks. I think all Medal of Honor recipients wear the medal in honor of our brothers who never made it home, it’s really to honor them.”
Larry Joe came in over the Tug River and landed in a small lot on Main Street. I think Ernie was a little surprised that he could land that helicopter there. After Larry Joe got everything shut down, we escorted Ernie to the school grounds where the AmVets had a display set up by the temporary memorial wall I had made with the names of Martin County soldiers who had died in war from WWI to the present. Ernie stopped by the wall and saluted those names. Larry Jack Adams, Herman Fletcher and a bunch of other Vietnam veterans had put up a tent and camp, complete with sandbags and such. Ernie talked with the veterans and you could tell he felt right at home with those guys, he showed them his medal.
Larry Jack suggested I take Ernie across the street to the military memorabilia display, a man had traveled from Lexington with a bunch of things for people to see, uniforms, guns, blank grenades and such. He even had a board with military medals on it, well over half the board was covered with the actual medals and where he didn’t have the medal to display he had pictures of what the medals looked like. Ernie and I enjoyed looking at his display and the gentleman seemed very knowledgeable of his items. When Ernie and I were looking at his military medals display, Ernie asked him why he didn’t have a Medal of Honor to display?
He said, “Sir, most people don’t know this but it’s against the law to display a Medal of Honor unless it has been awarded to you. I have only seen one real one at a military funeral in Lexington a few years back, the closest I got was about 50 feet to the gentleman wearing it. I have been given some of the medals I’m displaying and I have bought some of these medals but I will never have one of those to display, even if I got one, I couldn’t display it. “
Ernie said, “I can tell you have done your homework, were you in the military yourself?”
“Yes sir, I served four years and my father was in WWII,” he said.
I knew that Ernie was getting ready to shock this guy out of his mind. All the time Ernie talked to him he had his hand in his coat pocket and then Ernie said, “Would you like to see a Medal of Honor?”
I don’t think we even advertised who our grand marshal was or that he was a Medal of Honor recipient, we had signs made up for the car he was going to ride in, but I honestly doubt that anyone in town that day, had ever heard of Ernie West. So, I’m pretty sure that gentleman displaying the military memorabilia had no idea that there was a possibility of someone in this small town having a Medal of Honor in his pocket. Ernie handed his medal to him.
“Oh my goodness,” he said. He never said anything else just kept looking at the medal and then back to Ernie for at least a couple of minutes. “I can’t believe I’m holding a Medal of Honor, what is your name sir, if I may ask?”
“Ernest E. West, United States Army, Korean War,” Ernie proudly stated.
I told him that I would be driving Ernie through town in the parade in about an hour and that he would be wearing his medal. The guy with the military display said, “I’ll be standing right here saluting you sir, as you go by! You have made my day Mr. West, I can’t believe I have held a Medal of Honor in my hands today.”
In the military, it is proper protocol for lower ranking officers to first salute higher ranking officers but when a Medal of Honor recipient is wearing his medal, even in civilian clothes, if a general walks past him, even he is supposed to salute the Medal of Honor recipient.
After the parade, my step mother, Gloria, had prepared us a great country meal, my Dad, Charles Cox, gave Ernie his place at the head of the table, and we found out a little about Ernie’s life. He was born in Wurtland and lived there until he was nine years old, when he and his sister were orphaned. He was sent to Versailles, Kentucky to an orphans home. After graduation from high school, he returned to Wurtland and took a job as apprentice electrician on the C & O Railroad. He worked side by side with a man named John W. Collier, who would latter be awarded the Medal of Honor (posthumously), they lived less than 10 miles apart. After the war he returned to Wurtland and to his old job at the C & O Railroad where he worked until retirement.
We loaded our special guest back in the helicopter and departed for Ashland. Ernie said, “To be honest with you guys, after I agreed to this helicopter ride, I wondered what kind of helicopter you would be picking me up in. I sure wasn’t expecting a beautiful new helicopter like this. I had heard of Warfield but didn’t really know where it was located, I looked it up on the map last night. I can’t say enough about how well I was treated today by the town folk and you guys have been great to me as well. I’m a member of the National Medal of Honor Society, here are a couple of cards for you guys. I can honestly say I have enjoyed my time today. Thank you.”
While checking background information for this story I realized that Ernie passed away on the first of May, 2021. Through the years, any time I would talk to someone from Greenup County, I would ask how he was doing and tell the story about his trip to Warfield. He was buried at the Kentucky Veterans Cemetery of Greenup County, with a 21 gun salute, he had the right to be buried at Arlington if he chose. Medal of Honor recipients also have the right to special military grave markers with gold lettering.
When my children, Tegan and Lauren, were in school I tried to take them to Washington, DC every couple of years to get a sense of the history of our country and to make what they were studying in school seem more real to them. I am now starting to take my grandchildren there as they get old enough to understand what our country is all about. The year before Covid started I took Knox (my oldest, then 10) on a quick trip. We couldn’t find a weekend that was free so we took off on a Monday evening after work, just him and me and drove over halfway, the next morning we arrived early in DC and toured all day long, we saw the Lincoln Memorial, WWII Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Natural History Museum and American History Museum, spent one night in Arlington, VA and the next morning we toured the US Capitol and bought souvenirs.
When we got back on the subway Knox asked me if we were heading home now. “Not just now buddy, Grandpa has one more thing to show you before we go home.”
We took the subway over to Arlington National Cemetery to see the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier. We could have waited in line and rode a bus back to the tomb but we walked back on the hill to where it was. While walking through the thousands of headstones you could see many sections with headstones in military percision, row after row, some sections are actually like local cemeteries with larger two sided headstones but through the military issued sections occasionaly I would notice a white stone with gold lettering, I knew what that meant, the Medal of Honor.
Knox and I watched the changing of the guard, the sergeant at arms asked that everyone who was able, to stand and remain quiet during the entire ceremony. Knox and I stood straight and quiet until it was over I didn’t have to ask Knox to I knew he would. As we were walking back to the visitors center and the subway station I told him, “We are heading back to Kentucky now buddy, how did you like your trip to DC?”
“I loved it Grandpa, I’d like to come back someday,” he said.
“We will Knox, I planned this to be our last stop for a reason, all the things we saw over there across the river in DC, the White House, the Capitol, all those big office buildings and museums, many great men and women have walked those halls over the last 200 years but the people lying under those headstones are the ones who made everything possible, don’t you ever forget that.”
Thank you for your service, Ernest E. West, United States Army, Medal of Honor recipient.
Aircraft—Bell…4…0…7…Mike…Charlie…inbound for landing…from the north…
Unicom—Cleared to land…
(Gary Wayne Cox is airport manager of Big Sandy Regional Airport owned by Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin and Martin Counties)