After a delay of 65 years and an Act of Congress, a Polk County soldier has finally been acknowledged for his heroism and sacrifice while a prisoner of war in Korea.
More than 100 friends and family crammed into the Medulla Community Center in Lakeland last week to watch as Edward “Grady” Halcomb was presented the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, an award for valor second only to the Medal of Honor.
Halcomb retired from the Army as a Sergeant First Class in 1968, but he was honored for what he did as a private when taken prisoner in the Korean War.
“All this recognition goes along with what my father used to say, ‘God make us humble and truly thankful for this and all other blessings you may bestow upon us’” Halcomb said as he stood firmly gripping his walker and greeting guests.
His face filled with joy when the 84-year-old saw the family minister, The Rev. Larry Miller, who delivered the ceremony’s opening prayer.
A color guard followed and then a presentation by U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross (FL-R) of Lakeland.
“I’m here to make sure that you receive the honor that is so long overdue,” Ross said. “The only living POW to ever receive this award, The Distinguished Service Cross, and let me tell you something, bear witness to this today, what you’re seeing is the award of an extraordinary honor given to an extraordinary man.”
Halcomb was captured in July 1950 along with more than 370 soldiers. He became the senior medic for the POWs at age 19. Volunteering to stay with the most severely wounded, giving them his food, Halcomb helped his fellow prisoners as they were forced to march north. He and four others managed to escape in October.
But Halcomb’s nomination for the Distinguished Service Cross was lost or overlooked. By the time it was discovered, it took an Act of Congress to lift the time limitation on the award. Ross helped usher that measure through Congress.
“Thank you Sgt. Halcomb,” Ross said. “You have done what this country so desperately needs. You’ve shown, by way of example, not only what it’s like to be a hero, but what it’s like to be a hero with humility.”
Korea is often called "the forgotten war," and the men who fought it often feel forgotten.
That’s why retired Air Force Col. Tom McDaniel began searching for answers about his father, Army Major William Thomas McDaniel. He was a 1941 West Point graduate, Korean War POW and posthumous recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross.
McDaniel was five years old when his father was murdered as a prisoner. While he was unwilling to escape as senior officer of the American POWs, he gave Halcomb and four others his blessing to escape. Five days later, Major McDaniel and more than 60 other soldiers were massacred in a railway tunnel.
His son, Col. McDaniel, found fragments of the story and seven POW survivors, including Halcomb. He also uncovered the nomination for Halcomb to receive the Distinguished Service Cross.
“I’m going to get a little emotional before I have to get military,” McDaniel said and then nodded to Halcomb. “This was the perfect POW. He did everything.”
It was McDaniel’s research for a book about his father, The Major: The Senior Officer in Charge: Commanding Fellow Prisoners of War, that led to recognition of what the POWs endured and how Halcomb helped.
“When the enemy retreated from Seoul, he (Halcomb) alone volunteered to stay with the weakest prisoners who were forced to walk with the main column on a grueling 120-mile march to Pyongyang,” McDaniel read from the award citation. “By placing himself with the most disabled, Pfc. Halcomb increased the probability of his own execution as the enemy guards executed soldiers, whose physical condition became a burden or slowed the pace.”
McDaniel read from the award citation and then pinned the medal on Halcomb’s lapel.
Too overwhelmed by the honor or memories, Halcomb had one of his daughters say he accept the honor on behalf of all the boys and all the young men who didn’t get out of that prison camp.
Historic versions vary, but under Maj. McDaniel’s command, of the 376 prisoners who started the march from Seoul, fewer than 30 survived.