- Garlin M. Conner: The Elusive Medal of Honor
On a beautiful spring day in May 1945, residents of Clinton and surrounding counties traveled from the hills of south-central Kentucky by foot, wagon, and automobile to see and honor the hometown soldier from Aaron, Kentucky, who had just returned from the war with numerous military decorations. A parade featuring prominent locals and the guest of honor, Garlin Murl Conner, wound through Albany to the town square and then to a ceremony in a large second-floor room in the courthouse. With the room filled to capacity, several dignitaries, including Alvin York, the renowned World War I Medal of Honor recipient, addressed the audience. Fifteen-year-old Pauline Wells, standing on a bench in the back of the crowded room and frustrated by the long wait, asked her mother repeatedly, “Where is he?” Each time her mother admonished Pauline to be patient. When the guest of honor finally rose to speak, Pauline exclaimed, rather matter of factly, “That little wharf rat? Why, he couldn’t have done all those things!” She later characterized Conner as a “cocky little fellow, but humble and yet proud of what he had accomplished.”1 [End Page 67]
Only two months after this homecoming celebration, twenty-six-year-old Conner enjoyed a brief courtship with the much-younger Pauline, married her, and immediately returned to his familiar rural community. Eager to put the war behind him and focus on his future, Conner and his young bride leased from his father a mule, some farming tools, and thirty-six acres along Indian Creek in Clinton County. There he embarked on life as a farmer. As the years passed, his close friends and associates indicated that Conner seldom talked about his war service, and each time someone suggested that he pursue efforts to add the deserved Medal of Honor to his list of decorations, he emphatically dismissed the idea. His usual reply was, “I’d done what I had to do and come home, and that’s all there is to it” or “It is in the past and in the past let it remain,” refusing to consider it further. Pauline said her husband “thought people would say he was bragging, and he didn’t want that.” His response was typical of many returning veterans, who believed they had done nothing extraordinary.2
Conner farmed all his life and for several years served as president of the local Kentucky Farm Bureau. In addition, he and his wife worked tirelessly helping disabled veterans receive their pension benefits, a service his wife continued. He died in 1998 at the age of seventy-nine after battling kidney failure and diabetes, which in his last years left him bedridden and unable to speak.3
Conner’s death only strengthened the resolve of his friends and advocates, for they now no longer needed to be concerned with Conner’s sensitivity to the subject of the Medal of Honor. Pauline fully supported the effort and believed that her husband, so quiet and unassuming, would have been less averse to a posthumous award. [End Page 68]
Approximately two years before Conner’s death, Richard Chilton of Genoa City, Wisconsin, a decorated Green Beret veteran of Korea and the Persian Gulf, had learned of Conner while corresponding with veterans who might have known his uncle, Gordon Roberts. Chilton wished to know more about the death of his uncle during the Anzio campaign. Unfortunately, out of nearly three hundred veterans of the Third Infantry Division, only two or three remembered his uncle, but several mentioned Conner. With what seemed his last option, Chilton wrote to Conner, who replied that he had been, in fact, Gordon Robert’s platoon sergeant at the time he was killed. However, the promised follow-up letter with more details never arrived.
After eventually receiving a letter from Conner’s wife indicating that because of ill health her husband could no longer write or speak, Chilton finally had to face the possibility that he might never know what had happened to his uncle. “I closed the book,” he recalled. Then either “fate, purpose, take your pick,” intervened. A friend called...