PICKENS COUNTY — Since its creation in 1861, the Medal of Honor has been presented to 3,471 of the nation’s sailors, Marines, soldiers, airmen and Coast Guardsmen.
The honor is bestowed on a select few: those who have distinguished themselves with unquestionable valor in action at the risk of their own life against an enemy of the United States. Four of those brave men hailed from Pickens County.
In a somber ceremony held Saturday, four monuments were dedicated to each of Pickens County’s fallen sons in recognition of their great deeds performed on behalf of the nation and in defense of their fellow soldier’s lives.
On Dec. 5, 1944, Pfc. William A. McWhorter, a machine gunner from Liberty, found himself in the Philippines fending off an advancement of enemy troops. When a live grenade was thrown into the trench he and his assistant was occupying, McWhorter picked up the device and held it to his chest, turning away from his compatriot and using his own body as a shield from the blast.
Nine months later, on Sept. 27, 1945, McWhorter was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. He was 25 years old.
Today, McWhorter is buried in West View Cemetery. On Saturday, during a 21-gun salute, a monument to his honor was unveiled in front of the Magistrate’s Office on Main Street in McWhorter’s hometown of Liberty.
“He displayed gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty,” McWhorter’s citation reads. “… (his) outstanding heroism and supreme sacrifice in shielding a comrade reflect the highest traditions of the military service.”
Not even covering two square miles in area, the odds that the tiny town of Six Mile would produce not one but two Medal of Honor recipients seem long indeed.
Pvt. Furman Leon Smith joined the Army in July 1943. As part of Company L, 3rd Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division, Pvt. Smith was deployed along with his fellow soldiers to Italy. According to the U.S. Army, his group was on maneuvers when they were suddenly attacked by a force of 80 Germans.
Smith refused to leave his wounded squad leader, and instead, placed the leader and another wounded man in a shell crater for protection and faced the approaching enemy … alone.
“Against overwhelming odds, he stood his ground until shot down and killed, rifle in hand,” Pvt. Smith’s citation reads. At the age of 19, he was returned home and laid to rest in Central’s Pleasant Hill Cemetery. Eight months later, on Jan. 24, 1945, Pvt. Smith was posthumously honored with the Medal of Honor.
Fleet Reserve Association Branch 15 posted the colors at the monument dedication ceremony in front of the Six Mile Fire Station named in Pvt. Smith’s honor. Taps echoed softly after a wreath was laid in honor of his gallantry in the face of such overwhelming odds.
After being discharged from the Marine Corps Reserve in 1968, Six Mile native James Donnie Howe turned right around and enlisted in the regular Marine Corps the following day. He was promoted to Private First Class in June 1969 before being deployed to Vietnam where he served as a rifleman and later a radio operator with Company I, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. By late December, Howe had been promoted again, reaching the rank of lance corporal.
Five months later, Howe and two other Marines were holding a defensive position on a sandy beach area fronted by bamboo thickets when, under the cover of darkness, the enemy suddenly launched a grenade attack. When one of the explosives landed in their midst, Howe immediately shouted a warning to the others before throwing himself on the grenade, absorbing the blast himself and thereby saving his fellow Marines.
Along with Howe’s Medal of Honor, which was awarded posthumously on Sept. 9, 1971, his medals and decorations include a Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal and the Vietnam Service Medal with one bronze star.
Howe’s remains were returned to his family and he was laid to rest by his parents, siblings and fiance in Liberty’s Memorial Gardens. The monument unveiled on Saturday in front of Liberty Fire Station #2 will forever attest to his heroism and bravery.
Charles Heyward Barker was born in Pickens County in 1935 and joined the Army at the age of 17 in 1952. As a Private with Company K of the 17th Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, Barker was deployed to Korea. During the Battle of Porkchop Hill, Barker and his companions surprised and engaged an enemy group digging emplacements into the slope while on a combat patrol.
As they laid down base fire, the patrol leader maneuvered the remainder of the platoon to a vantage point on higher ground.
According to the Army, Barker then moved to an open area and began firing his rifle and hurling grenades toward the hostiles’ positions. As enemy action increased, ammunition became critical in supply and as a result, his platoon was ordered to withdraw. Instead of falling back, Barker elected to stay and cover his platoon mates as they made their way back to friendly lines. He was last seen in close hand to hand combat with the enemy.
Barker was initially classified as missing in action before being declared dead one year later. Although his remains were never returned home to South Carolina, his name is inscribed in the Courts of the Missing on the Honolulu Memorial within the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
Along with being posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in June 1955 for his actions on Pork Chop Hill, Barker was also promoted to private first class.
Barker’s memory is further honored by the citizens of Pickens County with the dedication of a memorial at the newly named Charles Hayward Barker Pickens Rural Fire Station #1.
“May we forever have men and women who are willing to raise their hands for service,” Marine Corps Capt. and Medal of Honor recipient James Livingston said during the ceremony to honor the four fallen servicemen. “God rest their souls.”