More than four decades ago, East Chicago Marine Lance Cpl. Emilio De La Garza Jr. used his body to absorb the explosion of an enemy grenade in Vietnam, giving his life to save fellow platoon members.
A century and a half ago, Westville Union Army Chaplain John Whitehead ignored a barrage of Confederate bullets to pull wounded troops from the front lines of one of the Civil War's most hotly contested battles in Tennessee.
The two men are among five from Northwest Indiana whose courageous actions in battle garnered the revered Medal of Honor.
As the award turns 150 years old today, The Times is remembering the recipients' stories and the history of this most prestigious of military awards.
Valor in Vietnam
Though she was only 2 when her father died in combat in Vietnam, Renee De La Garza Lugo, of Chicago, remembers some of the final stories of the man's life.
De La Garza Jr., then 20, spent a brief leave from combat in Vietnam with his young wife, Rosemary, in Hawaii in April 1970. De La Garza Lugo said she was ill and had to stay in East Chicago with her grandparents at that time.
“They were high school sweethearts and married right after they graduated. They didn’t have much money and really didn’t have a honeymoon. That was their honeymoon,” she said of her parents.
Two days after Rosemary De La Garza returned to their East Chicago home, a unit of Marines knocked on her door with the worst news a military family can receive.
Just two days after his leave, Emilio De La Garza sacrificed his life to save a squad of fellow Marines and Navy personnel on patrol with him by falling on a hand grenade lobbed by a Viet Cong soldier in a jungle clearing.
President Richard Nixon presented the Medal of Honor posthumously to the Northwest Indiana resident in 1970. The De La Garza family accepted the medal, the nation’s highest military award for extreme bravery and valor.
Emilio De La Garza was one of 246 Medal of Honor recipients from the Vietnam War, 154 of which were bestowed posthumously, according to military records.
“About 90 percent of the Congressional Medals of Honor have been awarded posthumously. Most of the recipients died in the service of their country,” said Bill Schroeder, commandant of the Calumet Marine Corps League Detachment 92.
Of the more than 40 million veterans who have served the country since the beginning of the Civil War, only 3,456 have been awarded the medal. And almost half of that number – 1,522 – was presented to Civil War veterans.
Two Northwest Indiana Civil War veterans were awarded the Medal of Honor, and both were fortunate to be alive for the presentation.
Chaplain Whitehead, of Westville, garnered his award by rushing into the line of enemy fire in order to save wounded troops at the 1862 Battle of Stones River in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Another Westville man, Union Army Lt. Thomas Graham, garnered his award for picking up his regimental flag from a fallen color bearer and using it to rally troops at the 1863 Battle of Missionary Ridge in Tennessee.
When the Medal of Honor was first proposed shortly after the start of the Civil War, some thought it was too European and aristocratic for Americans, said Evans Kerrigan, author of "American Medals and Decorations."
One bill passed by Congress on Dec. 21, 1861, authorized President Abraham Lincoln to award 200 Navy Medals of Honor. That bill permitted the medal to be given for both combat and noncombat bravery.
It took another year before the first Medal of Honor ceremony occurred March 25, 1863. The medals went to six survivors of the Great Locomotive Chase, a daring commandeering of a Confederate train in Big Shanty, Ga., by 22 Union soldiers in April 1862. The soldiers took the train northward and destroyed rail tracks and telegraph lines along the way.
Schroeder said the Medal of Honor now is awarded for “an act of valor and of extreme bravery. It’s not just for giving your life, but for giving your life and saving others, for performing an act so extremely brave (that most people wouldn’t do it).
“They (who received the medal) and their families paid a high price.”
De La Garza Lugo said she and her mother understand and lived with that responsibility.
During her teen years, De La Garza Lugo said she would have traded that medal for time with her father.
“Growing up in Hammond, I didn’t understand why Dad wasn’t around. I’d say, ‘He won this medal. So what? He’s dead.’ I never understood until I got older,” she said.
“There always has been that emptiness. Yet I know that was just the way he was when he was alive. He would have done anything for anyone,” De La Garza Lugo said. “Being married, I know how hard it was for my mother.
“Since they were little, I’ve always talked with my daughters about their grandfather. My oldest daughter, in fact, did a project for school about her grandfather,” she said.
Remembering them today
All five Northwest Indiana men to have received the Medal of Honor have been enshrined on the South Shore Wall of Legends at the Indiana Welcome Center in Hammond. They were inducted onto the wall in a special ceremony in December.
Ten years after Emilio De La Garza’s death, the School City of East Chicago dedicated a new building in honor of the hometown hero and product of the school system.
Ivy Tech Community College purchased the building at 410 E. Columbus Drive in 1994, and officials decided to keep the name “to honor the memory and valor of this young man,” Vice Chancellor Luis Gonzalez said.
A bronze bust of De La Garza also graces the conference room at Ivy Tech.