On this day in 1924, a hero is born. Mike C. Peña would go on to enlist in the Army when he was just 16 years old. He reportedly lied about his age and persuaded his mom to sign a release just a few months before Pearl Harbor.
He never made it past the 6th grade.
Peña might not have been much for reading or studying, but he handled pressure well in other ways. His sister would later remember that he’d once used Boy Scout training to save a friend who’d been bitten by a rattlesnake. “The doctor said that if my brother hadn’t remembered how to put a tourniquet on that leg,” she explained, “that he would have lost his limb or died.”
Peña climbed quickly through the ranks during World War II. “One time they offered to make him a lieutenant,” his brother Alfredo said. “But he didn’t want it. He liked the action, the excitement, being with his men.”
In the end, Peña was wounded twice, but he survived World War II. He went home, got married, and had kids before traveling overseas with the Army, yet again. His Medal action came on September 4, 1950, as he served near Waegwan, Korea.
The act of bravery was a simple one, but it saved his men.
Enemy forces had approached Master Sergeant Peña’s platoon late in the evening. It was dark, and a mist covered the enemy’s approach until they were only a few yards away. Our soldiers opened fire, but they’d been taken off guard and had to pull back. Peña got his men reorganized, then led a counterattack.
It worked—at first. But the badly outnumbered American force ran out of ammunition too quickly. Peña knew what he had to do.
“Realizing that their scarce supply of ammunition would soon make their positions untenable,” Peña’s Medal citation later explained, “Master Sergeant Peña ordered his men to fall back and manned a machinegun to cover their withdrawal. He singlehandedly held back the enemy until the early hours of the following morning when his position was overrun and he was killed.”
Unfortunately, Peña didn’t get a Medal of Honor at first. Instead, he received a Distinguished Service Cross. Ultimately, though, a 2014 review of old awards concluded that his Cross should have been a Medal of Honor.
His son, Michael, soon got a call. “The caller asked if I had a minute to talk to the president,” he chuckled. “What am I going to tell them . . . that I’ve got to go to the store? I just wish I’d recorded it.” He’d long thought that his father’s Cross should have been a Medal, and he was thrilled to receive the call. “I told the president that I was already proud of my dad, and that it was an honor to be his son,” the younger Peña concluded.
He'd been only 3 years old when his dad sacrificed himself for his men, but he’d always hoped that his dad’s sacrifice meant other kids got to grow up with their own fathers.
“I don’t think [Dad] thought he was doing anything special,” Michael concluded. “I think, if he survived, he would have just thought he was doing something for his buddies and fellow soldiers.”
Another American hero, persevering, sacrificing—doing what Americans do.
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Cindy Horswell, Man awarded Medal of Honor posthumously (Longview News-Journal; March 18, 2014) (p. A12)
J.R. Ortega, Son receives father’s belated Medal of Honor (Victoria Advocate; March 19, 2014) (p. A4)
Master Sergeant Mike C. Pena (U.S. Army website)
Medal of Honor citation (Mike. C. Pena)
Obama Gives Medal of Honor to 24 vets from 3 wars (Victoria Advocate; March 19, 2014) (p. A4)
Sara Sneath, 2 Crossroads men to receive Medal of Honor after 12-year review of prejudice policies (Victoria Advocate; March 18, 2014) (p.A1)
Soldiers with local ties honored (El Paso Times; March 18, 2014) (p. 1)