If the St. Louis County Historical Society learned anything from the late Maj. Henry A. Courtney Jr. of Duluth, it’s tenacity.
Courtney, a lawyer who joined the U.S. Marines before the start of World War II, never gave up. Not when he fought in Guadalcanal. Not when he got sent home to recuperate from malaria. Not when he voluntarily joined in the Battle of Okinawa.
Not even after shrapnel ripped into his left thigh in May 1945. Courtney got patched up and went straight back to the front lines — with the shrapnel still in his leg — to lead his men as they faced an overwhelming Japanese force. Anticipating a withering attack, Courtney invited his troops to follow him up Sugar Loaf Hill to take the fight to the enemy.
“He said, ‘Let’s give them a banzai attack of our own,’ ” said Court Storey, 75, a nephew who has researched his uncle’s service record.
Some 25 Marines rallied behind Courtney on May 14, 1945, charging up the 50-foot, heavily fortified mound, throwing grenades as they went. Twenty-six more men followed with a fresh supply of ammo. Courtney died the next day at age 29 from mortar fire and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery, which military historians say disrupted the Japanese assault and undoubtedly saved the lives of countless troops.
Because Courtney never married and had no children, Storey said, “he was kind of a forgotten guy” after his parents died. In 1980, one of his sisters donated his Medal of Honor to the nonprofit Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, Pa., which had promised to use it to illustrate the story of his service to the country.
Unfortunately, Storey said, that didn’t happen; the medal was stored in a vault. So in 2014, Storey and the Historical Society began trying to get the medal back. The foundation resisted but recently agreed to turn it over to the Historical Society on a five-year, indefinitely recurring loan.
“We weren’t going to go away; we weren’t going to quit,” said Mike Stainbrook, a retired Delta Air Lines captain and former captain in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves who led the effort to get the medal back.
The medal will be installed Wednesday in a display in the Veterans Memorial Hall Gallery in the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center in Duluth. Alan Anderson, a Minneapolis lawyer and military historian, will discuss the significance of the medal. Those planning to attend can call 218-733-7586 to reserve a seat.
“His path up Sugar Loaf Hill started long before — particularly at Guadalcanal,” Anderson said, explaining his deep connection to his fellow Marines. He said Courtney could have stayed in the U.S. as a trainer after his bout with malaria, but he realized that with increasing numbers of Marines joining the war effort, “these young men needed combat-tested leaders, and he was one.”
The Rev. Eugene Kelly, the chaplain with Courtney’s unit, wrote to his parents shortly after his death. He said Courtney was a close friend who was motivated by his Catholic faith and his sincere love for the men in his unit, whom he referred to as “his boys.”
“He didn’t care whether he died or not — I mean by that that he wasn’t thinking of himself — he was thinking of those lads and he lived up to the hilt to give his best for them,” Kelly wrote. “Hundreds of lads will line the rails of ships going back to the States carrying them to vocations, marriages, families because your son loved them.”
Maj. Gen. Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr., who led the newly organized 6th Marine Division at the time, wrote to Courtney’s parents after his death. He described Courtney as a hero whose charge up Sugar Loaf Hill was “among the most inspiring in the annals of the Marine Corps.” A U.S. Marine camp in Uruma, Okinawa, was named after him.
A fundraising dinner honoring all Medal of Honor recipients in northeast Minnesota is scheduled for Nov. 15 in the Duluth Depot’s Great Hall. Richard Neal, retired assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, will be the keynote speaker. For information and reservations, call the St. Louis County Historical Society at 218-733-7581.