The city of Duluth is where Henry Courtney Jr. was born, where he was raised, and where his flag-draped coffin came home to from World War II.
They still tell his story, almost 74 years after a quiet, courageous young Marine sacrificed everything he had to protect everything he loved.
An honor guard tends his grave. The newly renovated Veterans’ Memorial Hall in the Duluth Depot celebrates his life and loss and the posthumous Medal of Honor he received for “gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his own life above and beyond the call of duty.”
If you visit the museum, you can read about him, and study his face in the photos, and feel some measure of the community’s loss.
But you can’t see Maj. Henry A. Courtney’s Medal of Honor.
It’s locked away in a vault in Pennsylvania.
And the people who have it won’t give it back.
For years, the Courtney family and the St. Louis County Historical Society have pleaded with the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge to return or briefly loan them the medal for the newly renovated museum’s Henry Courtney exhibit.
No, the foundation board told them.
One of Courtney’s sisters, worried that the medal would end up forgotten in an attic, donated it to the foundation back in the 1980s.
It’s their medal now.
It sits in a vault with seven other Medals of Honor the foundation has collected over the years. From time to time, staff bring a few out to show to visiting schoolchildren and teachers during lectures about honor and valor and sacrifice.
Duluth commissioned a replica medal for the Courtney exhibit. When they installed it in its display case last November, a figure in the crowd rose unsteadily to his feet and saluted.
It was Ed Kachinske, 95, who fought and bled in the Battle of Okinawa, just like Courtney. He knew what the Medal of Honor represents.
A real hero saluted a fake medal.
Courtney’s nephew, Court Storey, grew up with the real medal. The one his heartbroken grandparents held in their hands. The one his grieving mother displayed on the wall in memory of her lost brother. He grew up listening to stories about his late uncle and reading the letters he wrote home.
“By now you know that I landed on Okinawa on Easter Sunday,” Henry Courtney wrote in his final letter. “We have been very fortunate so far and I hope our luck lasts. God has certainly been with us. Let’s pray it won’t be too long before we are together again.”
By May 14, 1945, thousands of Marines lay dead or gravely injured and Major Courtney was studying a low hill where, he knew, the Japanese forces would soon launch a counterattack on the depleted American ranks.
He turned to the 25 Marines behind him.
“I’m going up Sugar Loaf Hill,” he said. “Who’s going to follow me?”
Every man followed as he charged uphill through bullets and mortar fire, tossing grenades and overrunning enemy positions. They dug in and held on until the following day, when Maj. Henry Alexius Courtney Jr. was struck by a mortar shell and killed instantly.
“He did what he believed in,” Court Storey said. “He did what he wanted to do.”
What his family wants now, more than anything, is for the people who see Courtney’s medal to know the man behind it.
But there are no exhibits or photos of Henry Courtney at the Freedoms Foundation.
“They don’t tell his story,” Storey said. “We told them, ‘You don’t use Henry’s story and you don’t speak his name.’”
The Freedoms Foundation hosts thousands of students and hundreds of teachers on its Valley Forge campus each year, leading them on tours of nearby historic sites and offering lessons on civic virtue. The Medal of Honor features heavily in that curriculum.
There’s a Medal of Honor Grove on the property, with recipients’ names and home states carved on obelisks.
Members of the Courtney family have visited the campus, hoping to see their uncle’s medal again, but were turned away. They were hurt to find no exhibits about his life or his sacrifice. Just his name, among other names, on an obelisk, 1,200 miles from home.
The foundation board has twice debated the family’s request to return or loan the medal to Duluth. Twice, the board rejected the idea, because no takebacks.
“We feel honor-bound by donor intent,” said foundation President David Harmer, who was out on the road last week, fundraising. “It’s not out of lack of sympathy for the family. It’s just out of a sober assessment of our own responsibility as custodians of these irreplaceable treasures that we regretfully — I hope courteously — declined the request.”
The foundation charges students roughly $450 for its multiday program. The cost to teachers is $1,550, offset by foundation scholarships.
The Freedoms Foundation is sitting on eight Medals of Honor it uses for show-and-tell.
A Medal of Honor recipient’s family is asking to borrow one.
“If this decision were made on the optics, we would have immediately acquiesced to the request,” Harmer said. “Because declining looks heartless.”
If you can think of a better word than “heartless,” give the Freedoms Foundation a call at 610-933-8825, or drop a postcard to 1601 Valley Forge Road, Valley Forge, PA 19482, or visit their Facebook page atfacebook.com/ FreedomsFoundation.