Months after enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1944, Pedro Cano found himself in a German forest, surrounded by Nazi soldiers. He sent nearly 30 to their deaths and lived to tell about it.
Joe Gandara found himself and his Army detachment pinned by enemy fire in Amfreville, France. After four hours, the 20-year-old ran alone toward the Nazi machine gunners, taking out three before being killed.
Leonard Kravitz’s unit was overrun by enemy troops in Korea in 1951. He stayed at his machine gun position long enough to give his fellow soldiers cover to retreat. Many of them survived, though Kravitz, who was just 20, did not.
Their stories were among 24 true tales of bravery and heroism honored today when President Obama awarded two dozen Medals of Honor to 24 Army veterans -- mostly Jewish, Hispanic or African-American -- who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
The Tuesday ceremony followed a congressionally-mandated review to ensure that eligible recipients were not bypassed due to prejudice. Some 6,505 winners of the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military award, were reviewed, with 24 singled out for the Medal of Honor.
"Today we have the chance to set the record straight," Obama said during the ceremony, adding that "some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal."
Eight of the soldiers served in Vietnam, nine in the Korean War and seven in World War II. Three of the soldiers are still living.
"I never really did worry about decorations," said Melvin Morris of Cocoa, Fla., who was commended for courageous actions while a staff sergeant during combat operations on Sept. 17, 1969, in the vicinity of Chi Lang, South Vietnam.
"I never really did worry about decorations."
- Former Army Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris
Morris, who is black, said in an interview last month that it never occurred to him that his race might have prevented him from receiving the Medal of Honor. He said it was a huge surprise when the Army contacted him last May about the review and then arranged for a call from Obama.
"I fell to my knees. I was shocked," Morris said. "President Obama said he was sorry this didn't happen before. He said this should have been done 44 years ago."
The other living recipients are Spc. 4 Santiago J. Erevia of San Antonio, cited for courage during a search-and-clear mission near Tam Ky, South Vietnam, on May 21, 1969; and Sgt. 1st Class Jose Rodela of San Antonio, cited for courage during combat operations in Phuoc Long province, South Vietnam, on Sept. 1, 1969.
The Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor, is awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. There have been fewer than 3,500 of the medals awarded to the nation's soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen since the medal was created in 1861.
Relatives of the soldiers who died in battle or later received the awards from President Obama.
In addition to Cano, Candara, Kravitz, Morris, Erevia and Rodela, recipients honored include:
- Sgt. Candelario Garcia, born in Corsicana, Texas, for courageous actions during combat operations in Lai Khe, South Vietnam, on Dec. 8, 1968.
- Spc. 4 Leonard L. Alvarado, born in Bakersfield, Calif., died during combat operations in Phuoc Long province, South Vietnam, on Aug. 12, 1969.
- Staff Sgt. Felix M. Conde-Falcon, born in Juncos, Puerto Rico, killed during combat operations in Ap Tan Hoa, South Vietnam, on April 4, 1969.
- Spc. 4 Ardie R. Copas of Fort Pierce, Fla. killed during combat operations near Ph Romeas Hek, Cambodia, on May 12, 1970.
- Spc. 4 Jesus S. Duran of San Bernardino, Calif., for courageous actions during combat operations in South Vietnam on April 10, 1969.
- Cpl. Joe R. Baldonado, born in Colorado, killed during combat operations in Kangdong, North Korea, on Nov. 25, 1950.
- Cpl. Victor H. Espinoza of El Paso, Texas, for courageous actions during combat operations in Chorwon, North Korea, on Aug. 1, 1952.
- Sgt. Eduardo C. Gomez, born in Los Angeles, for courageous actions during combat operations in Tabu-dong, South Korea, on Sept. 3, 1950.
- Master Sgt. Juan E. Negron of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, for courageous actions during combat operations in Kalma-Eri, North Korea, on April 28, 1951.
- Master Sgt. Mike C. Pena, born in Newgulf, Texas, killed in action during combat operations in Waegwan, South Korea, on Sept. 4, 1950.
- Pvt. Demensio Rivera, born in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, for courageous actions during combat operations in Changyong-ni, South Korea, on May 23, 1951.
- Pvt. Miguel A. Vera, born in Puerto Rico, killed during combat operations in Chorwon, North Korea, on Sept. 21, 1952.
- Sgt. Jack Weinstein of Saint Francis, Kan. for courageous actions during combat operations in Kumsong, South Korea, on Oct. 19, 1951.
- Pfc. Salvador J. Lara, of Riverside, Calif., for courageous actions during combat operations in Aprilia, Italy, May 27-28, 1944.
- Sgt. William F. Leonard, of Lockport, N.J., for courageous actions during combat operations near St. Die, France, on Nov. 7, 1944.
- Staff Sgt. Manuel V. Mendoza, born in Miami, Ariz., for courageous actions during combat operations on Mount Battaglia, Italy, on Oct. 4, 1944.
- Sgt. Alfred B. Nietzel, born in New York City, for courageous actions during combat operations in Heistern, Germany, on Nov. 18, 1944.
- 1st Lt. Donald K. Schwab, born Hooper, Neb., for courageous actions during combat operations near Lure, France, on Sept. 17, 1944.
The Associated Press contributed to this report