In Duluth, they still tell the story of Maj. Henry Courtney Jr.
They remember the boy he was and the hero they lost in one of the final battles of World War II.
Soon, they’ll do more than just talk about the posthumous Medal of Honor he earned on the slopes of Okinawa’s Sugar Loaf Hill, seven decades ago.
Courtney’s medal is coming home, after long years in storage in a Pennsylvania vault.
His family and community, who have been pleading and negotiating for the medal’s return, celebrated Tuesday’s unanimous vote by the board of the Freedoms Foundation of Valley Forge. The nonprofit, dedicated to civic education, has eight donated Medals of Honor in its collection and had been reluctant to part with any of them — even after the St. Louis County Historical Society set up an exhibit to celebrate Courtney’s life, complete with a display case for his medal.
Twice, the foundation board voted on the Courtney family’s request for the medal’s return. Twice, the decision was “no.”
But this year, other Minnesotans joined the call, jamming the foundation’s phone lines and Facebook page with requests for the medal’s return.
The foundation scheduled a third vote for Tuesday. This time, the answer was “yes.”
“We’re grateful. We think the proper place, the best place [for the medal] is Duluth,” said Courtney’s nephew, Court Storey, who grew up looking at the medal, first in his grandparents’ home in Duluth, then in his parents’ home in the Twin Cities. “His story will now touch lives, and perhaps be an inspiration for others.”
Courtney’s medal eventually passed to his sister, Elizabeth. There was no Veterans Memorial Hall in Duluth in those days and she worried that her brother’s medal, and the story of his life, would end up forgotten in an attic somewhere. She struck up a friendship with a nun who was working with the Freedoms Foundation to write biographies of all the nation’s Medal of Honor recipients, and, in 1980, Elizabeth donated the medal in the foundation’s care.
The foundation brings almost 2,000 students and teachers to its campus each year for lessons about civic virtue and sacrifice. Part of that curriculum revolves around the Medal of Honor, this nation’s highest military award for valor. A few of the medals come out of the vault for visitors to view. But the foundation isn’t a museum. There are no exhibits about Courtney, the 29-year-old attorney who didn’t need to issue a single order to get his men to follow him in his final charge against the Japanese entrenchments.
“I’m going up Sugar Loaf Hill,” Courtney told the 25 Marines behind him. “Who’s going to follow me?”
His Medal of Honor cites his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
These days, Duluth has an entire museum dedicated to people like Henry Courtney — the Veterans Memorial Hall in the historic downtown railroad depot.
Last November, the St. Louis County Historical Society installed a replica of Courtney’s medal as it opened a new exhibit dedicated to Courtney’s life and service. It’s not clear yet when the real medal will take its place in the display.
The Freedoms Foundation said it will “loan” it to Duluth and it is not yet clear whether the loan will be permanent. A foundation spokesman said those details will be worked out with the county historical society.
“The Board of Directors of Freedoms Foundation has agreed in principle to loan the Medal of Honor awarded to Marine Maj. Henry A. Courtney Jr. to the St. Louis County Historical Society for its Veterans Memorial Hall in Courtney’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota,” the nonprofit said in a statement Tuesday. “Being entrusted with a Medal of Honor is a tremendous responsibility.”
For now, veterans, historians and Courtney’s relatives are celebrating — and thanking everyone who called or wrote or urged the Freedoms Foundation to this change of heart.
In the end, Storey said, the foundation “stood tall and came to the right decision.”
“I hope it’s a win-win for everyone,” he said. “For Duluth, for the family and for the Freedoms Foundation.”
If you’d like to thank the Freedoms Foundation for returning a little piece of Duluth’s heart — preferably on perpetual loan — you can reach them at 610-933-8825, or drop a postcard to 1601 Valley Forge Road, Valley Forge, PA 19481, or visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/FreedomsFoundation.
If you’d like more information about Duluth’s Veterans Memorial Hall, you can find it at vets-hall.org.