Monument honors ‘special breed' of soldier

Friday, August 7, 2009

By MARTIN J. KIDSTON of the Helena Independent Record

FORT HARRISON - Leading four men, Cornelius Smith drove off a superior Indian force and held his ground in White River, S.D., against repeated counterattacks.

It was there on the Great Plains in January 1891 that Smith finally fell while in the service of his country.

The soldier, who joined the Army out of Helena and served in the 6th U.S. Cavalry before his death at White River, is one of just eight Montana men to ever receive the military's highest commendation in the Medal of Honor.Like the other seven men remembered here in the Medal of Honor Grove west of Helena, Smith's is a story of courage under fire and dedication to his fellow soldiers.

“Medal of Honor recipients are a special breed,” said Joe Foster, Montana Veterans Affairs administrator, standing beside Smith's marker at the Fort Harrison monument. “In Montana, particularly, you don't hear much about it.”

Created more than a decade ago, the monument has blossomed in the shadows of the fort, getting little attention and even fewer visitors.

It was never officially dedicated, and few ceremonies have been held on its meticulously landscaped grounds.

Ken Larson, a veteran of the Korean War who served 39 years in the military, thinks it is time for that to change. The former Airman and retired Montana Guardsman is looking to put the monument on the map, so to speak, and give it the attention he says it deserves.

“Only a half-dozen people in Helena know anything about it, and in this day and age, I think people ought to know about it,” Larson said. “There are eight men in there. It's very impressive. It goes back a long ways.”

Montana claims one of the largest veteran populations per capita of any state in the union. But the fact that so few in the state have won the Medal of Honor in 130 years of Montana military history make it a hard-earned and highly respected award.

There were two from the Indian Wars, including Cornelius Smith and John McLennon, and one from the Philippine Insurrection, that being John Moran, who served with the U.S. Volunteers before his death on the battlefield in September 1900.

Other sacrifices are remembered here as well, including that of Leo Powers, who joined at Alder Gulch and died in Cassino, Italy, on Feb. 3, 1944.

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty,” his marker reads.

The other Montanans who were awarded the medal also served during World War II - William Galt of Stanford; Laverne Parrish of Ronan; Donald Ruhl of Columbus; and Henry Schauer of Scobey.

Foster, who once served as the public affairs officer for the Montana National Guard, helped drive the monument from concept to creation.

He remembers the aging buildings and the parking lot that once sat here. When he looks around, he admits to liking the improvements.

“I think we started the process in 1999,” Foster said. “It was about a year-and-a-half deal to get it going.”

The monument holds a small plot of ground just inside the gate at Fort Harrison. The ground is softly rounded and the grass golf-course green. A pathway leads visitors on a circular stroll past nine markers, each inscribed with names, dates and battlefield heroics.

That ninth marker is blank, leaving room for the unlikely possibility that Jim Darcy, a Montana helicopter pilot who died in Vietnam, receives the high commendation some feel he deserves.

“There have been efforts through the years for him to receive the Medal of Honor,” Foster said. “It has never come to fruition, and perhaps it never will.”

Foster points to the small trees growing beside each marker. The trees are historic, spliced from famous trees casting shade over historic locations around the country.

A green ash with a link to Dwight Eisenhower grows behind Leo Powers' marker. A red maple with ties to Charles Lindbergh grows beside the plaque remembering John Moran.

There's a white ash spliced from a tree at the Appomattox Court House, a catalpa taken from the Chatham House, and a silver maple remembering the Minutemen.

“Ultimately, what we're hoping is that this all becomes an educational centerpiece, where perhaps students will come out here and learn about this aspect of Montana's military heritage,” Foster said. “But the recognition was the biggest thing.”

The monument sits across the street from the growing Montana Military Museum. The museum's own display of history begins with the Indian Wars and extends through World War II. Pending an expansion, it may soon allow more room to continue the history through modern times.

The monument's location near the museum is no accident. But while the museum draws visitors from around the state and beyond, the monument does not.

“I've been out at the Fort for 50 some years in various ways,” Larson said. “I've done a lot of things out there and I'm really interested in that Fort. I want people to know about this monument.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at (406) 447-4086 or at

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