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Medal of Honor Monday: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class George E. Wahlen

When Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class George Edward Wahlen was assigned as a hospital corpsman during World War II, he tried to get out of it. He couldn’t, though, so he embraced the role instead. His bravery and valor in helping his fellow Marines despite his own wounds on the bloody battlefields of Iwo Jima earned him the Medal of Honor.

Wahlen was born on Aug. 8, 1924, in Ogden, Utah, to Albert and Doris Wahlen. When he was 12, Wahlen and his younger twin brothers, Jack and Gene, moved with their parents to a small farm where they did chores as they grew up.

As a teen, Wahlen said he got into boxing thanks to a neighbor who was a professional in the sport. He said he dropped out of high school and instead trained as a civilian aircraft mechanic at Hill Field (now Hill Air Force Base) just south of his hometown.

In a 2002 Library of Congress Veterans History Project interview, Wahlen said that when the U.S. entered World War II, he’d hoped to be drafted into the Army Air Corps. But the service said it didn’t need more men with his skills, so he enlisted in the Navy Reserve in June 1943 because he was told they had airplanes, too. Wahlen said he’d wanted to continue working on aircraft, but he was sent to hospital corps training in San Diego instead.

Wahlen said he tried to get out of that duty by talking to the chief at the training school he was attending.

“I said, ‘I want to become an aircraft mechanic. That’s what I’ve been trained for.’ He says, ‘Well, I tell you what. You do good in school, [and] I’ll try to get you what you want.’ So, I stayed up every night until midnight studying. I finally graduated fairly near the top of my class and went in and reminded him of what he told me. He looked at me and kind of grinned and said, ‘We need good men in the hospital corps.’ Then, I knew I was pretty well stuck,” Wahlen remembered.

By early 1944, Wahlen had volunteered for a battalion within the Fleet Marine Force, which used Navy hospital corpsmen as medics. In February 1944, he was sent to serve in Hawaii with the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines, 5th Marine Division. By November of that year, he’d worked his way up to pharmacist’s mate 2nd class.

On Feb. 19, 1945, Wahlen’s platoon, part of Company F, landed on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima to begin one of the fiercest battles in the Pacific Theater. Wahlen said his unit was meant to be held in reserve, but the casualties were so numerous that they were sent into battle the same day they landed.

“I’ll always remember getting there. I wasn’t too far from my platoon leader, a lieutenant, and … one of the platoon runners called over and said, ‘Lieutenant, I lost my rifle coming out of the boat.’ And the lieutenant said, ‘Well, there’s plenty of dead out here. Go find one,'” he remembered.

It was only a week later when Wahlen would become a casualty himself.

On Feb. 26, Wahlen was painfully wounded by a grenade, but he stayed on the battlefield, moving well forward of the front lines so he could carry a wounded Marine to safety despite heavy fire coming at them. Wahlen tirelessly attended to his injured comrades, consistently disregarding any danger to himself from the barrage of shrapnel and bullets.

When he learned that a nearby platoon had suffered heavy casualties, Wahlen ignored the pounding of heavy mortars and the enemy rifles surrounding him to care for those men, too, “working rapidly in an area swept by constant fire and treating 14 casualties before returning to his own platoon,” his Medal of Honor citation read.

Days later, on March 2, Wahlen was wounded again when grenade shrapnel hit him in the face. The young corpsman said the injury temporarily shocked him, but he eventually wrapped his own bandages before crawling to help another wounded comrade. However, he couldn’t quite reach that man because the enemy was firing at them from a foxhole. Instead, he asked a Marine down the hill from him to pass up a few grenades because Wahlen wasn’t armed. Wahlen then crawled further up the hill, dodging enemy grenades to get to the foxhole. He had trouble arming the explosive at first, but he finally got it to work and tossed it into the foxhole, taking out the enemy soldier who had been injuring his comrades.

Afterward, Wahlen finally was able to get to the wounded Marine he’d initially been trying to help. He said another comrade came to help, and that’s how they were both able to get off that hill.

Wahlen continued on with his company the next day, taking part in a furious assault across 600 yards of open terrain. He repeatedly gave aid to his comrades, despite the firepower aimed at him, before being wounded a third time by an artillery mortar.

“I went to stand up to get to [more injured Marines] and fell down. I couldn’t walk,” Wahlen said. “I looked down, and my boot had been torn off. I’d been hit in the leg and later found out my leg had been broken.”

Wahlen said he bandaged his own leg and gave himself a shot of morphine, then crawled about 50 yards to help another Marine. Eventually, other corpsmen came to his aid. Finally, he agreed to be evacuated to a battalion aid station. 

Wahlen’s dauntless bravery was a constant inspiration to the men around him, helping to keep morale high through critical phases of the battle. Later, he said he was just doing what was expected of him.

“The thought that if one of these people died and I didn’t do my job, how would I live with that for the rest of my life?” Wahlen questioned. “I think that was one of the big thoughts that was in my mind.”

According to naval historians, over the course of the 36-day Battle of Iwo Jima, 332 hospital corpsmen were killed in action or died of their wounds, while another 659 were wounded badly enough to be evacuated. Their valor didn’t go unnoticed, either. Iwo Jima corpsmen received 14 Navy Crosses, 108 Silver Stars and 287 Bronze Stars. Four of the 27 Medals of Honor awarded to Iwo Jima veterans were given to corpsmen, including Wahlen.

Wahlen spent nine months recovering and was still doing so when he received the Medal of Honor on Oct. 5, 1945. President Harry S. Truman bestowed it on Wahlen and 13 other men during Nimitz Day ceremonies at the White House. Naval historians said that Wahlen and one other corpsman, Francis Pierce, were the only two surviving corpsmen from Iwo Jima to receive the honor.

Wahlen was discharged from the Navy in December 1945. He married Melba Holley the following year. They went on to have five children.

After the war, Wahlen was known as a humble man who didn’t talk much about his time in the war. His wife once told the Lakeside Review newspaper in Layton, Utah, that she didn’t even know he’d received the Medal of Honor until a friend told her she was dating a war hero.

Wahlen went on to get a degree from Weber Junior College (now Weber State University) in his hometown before working for the Railway Messenger Service for a time. But he grew to miss the military community, so in November 1948, he enlisted in the Army as a recruiter. Soon after, he commissioned as an officer so he could continue his work in the medical service. Wahlen served in Korea and Vietnam, retiring at the rank of major in 1968.

For about a decade afterward, Wahlen worked for what is now the Department of Veterans Affairs before retiring for good at age 59. He also remained active in veterans’ organizations throughout his community.

In 2004, special legislation was approved to make Wahlen the new namesake of the VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City. A veterans’ nursing home that opened in 2010 in his hometown was also named in his honor.

A book called “The Quiet Hero: The Untold Medal of Honor Story of George E. Wahlen at the Battle for Iwo Jima,” by Gary W. Toyn, was published in 2006.

Wahlen died on June 5, 2009, in Salt Lake City. He was 84. The Marine Corps said he was honored with a large memorial service attended by veterans from all services. He is buried in Lindquist’s Memorial Gardens of the Wasatch in his hometown of Ogden.

This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.

Source: Department of Defense

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