The first recipients of the Kentucky Medal for Valor

By John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard

Four Airmen are honored with the Kentucky Medal for Valor during a ceremony at Standiford Field in Louisville, Ky., Oct. 6, 1954. (L-R) Master Sgt. Howard Curtis, Tech Sgt Walter Carter, Tech Sgt. Charlie Simmons, and Airman 1st Class Jessie Brown. The four Airmen rescued Puerto Rico Soldiers following the crash of their plane at the airport in September, 1953. (Photo courtesy of the Kentucky National Guard eMuseum)

The Kentucky National Guard’s highest state decoration is the Medal for Valor, which may be awarded to a member of the Kentucky National Guard who has distinguished himself/herself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his/her life above and beyond the call of duty while in the service of the State and/or United States.  Additionally, it must have involved personal risk of life or a performance of more than ordinarily hazardous service, the omission of which would not justly subject the person to censure for shortcoming or failure in the performance of duty. No award of the Medal for Valor shall be made except upon clear and uncontested proof of at least one eyewitness or person having personal knowledge of the act or deed.

The Medal for Valor was authorized on May 4, 1953, by Brig. Gen. Jesse S. Lindsay, the Adjutant General.  An order for the first six of the medal was placed with N. S. Meyer Company, April 10, 1953, the design for the medal came from sketches furnished by the staff of the Office of the Adjutant General.

The first presentation of the Medal was made Oct. 6, 1954, to four members of the Kentucky Air National Guard for their actions on September 28, 1953, at Standiford Field, in Louisville, following the crash of an Army chartered C-46 aircraft, in which 38 Puerto Rican soldiers were in transit from Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, to Fort Knox for training and re-assignment.  A number of soldiers were veterans of the Korean War.  Of the total of 41 persons aboard the aircraft, twenty-two died in the crash.  At the time it was the worst airplane crash in Kentucky’s history and the first fatal aviation accident at Standiford since the field opened in 1943.

As the plane crashed its left engine burst into flames, the blaze moved instantly to the right engine.  Fire apparatus and ground crews reached the scene within seconds.  The fire was quickly doused through the efforts of Tech Sgt. Charles William Simmons, Tech Sgt. Walter Carter and Airman 1st Class Jesse Brown, Jr.  The fourth Airman, Tech Sgt. Howard Arthur Curtis, upon arriving at the site proceeded to assist in the rescue of injured and dying passengers, and was credited with saving a number of lives.  All four were members of the Kentucky National Guard’s 123rd Fighter Bomber Wing.

These men were the first to arrive at the scene with fire-fighting equipment. After the flames on the plane were extinguished, the Guardsmen took victims to hospitals in ambulances.  For their efforts in support this tragedy involving U. S. Army personnel, they were awarded the Soldier’s Medal March 14, 1954, with a fitting and solemn ceremony, near the site of the crash, in front of the Kentucky Air National Guard Hanger at Standiford Field.  Their medals were presented by County Judge George S. Wetherby and Acting Louisville Mayor W. S. Milburn.

It would be another seven months after receiving their Soldier’s Medal from the Army, the Commonwealth of Kentucky recognized the heroism of these four Air Guardsmen with presentation of the first four Kentucky Medal for Valor. They were presented by Governor Lawrence W. Wetherby, in a ceremony at the State Capitol Oct. 6, 1954.

To date a total of 58 Medals of Valor have been presented to members of the Kentucky Army and Air National Guard.  Forty-four to Army Guardsmen, 15 to Air Guardsmen, one has been awarded to an Air Guard female with fifty-seven going to men serving in both the Army and Air Guard.  Harmon D. Cross, of the Army Guard is the only double recipient of the medal.

Gov. Matt Bevin presented the most recent Medal for Valor Sept. 8, 2017 to Staff Sgt. Michael Tester with the 1st Battalion, 623rd Field Artillery.