Sailor Earned MoH Saving Lives on WWI Battlefields

By Katie Lange
Defense Media Activity

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

Did you know that in all of World War I, only 21 sailors earned Medals of Honor? John Henry Balch was one of them.

Navy Pharmacist’s Mate First Class John Henry Balch. Navy photo

Born in 1896 in Edgerton, Kansas, Balch joined the Navy in May 1917 and became a pharmacist’s mate first class (a current-day hospital corpsman). He was assigned to the 2nd Division, American Expeditionary Forces, and was sent to Europe to fight with the Allies in World War I.

Twice, Balch risked his life beyond the call of duty to help his injured comrades.

Balch served with the 6th Regiment of the U.S. Marines during a battle at Vierzy, France, on July 19, 1918. It was a fierce fight, but Balch put his own fears aside to help the others. He was assigned to the dressing station — a military first-aid post close to the combat area — but he didn’t stay there. Time and again that day, he left the safety of the station, fearlessly exposing himself to intense machine-gun fire and explosives to help and collect wounded men to take back to safety. He spent 16 hours doing this.

A few months later, that gallantry was on full display again. Despite heavy gunfire, on Oct. 5, 1918, during a battle at Somme-Py, Balch went ahead of his troops to successfully set up a dressing station on the battlefield.

Before either of those incidents, however, Balch was injured during the Battle of Belleau Wood, one of the most significant battles of the war. Thankfully, he recovered.

A soldier on a stretcher receives medical treatment at a dressing station in Europe during World War I, March 5, 1919. National Archives photo

Balch was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1919 and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroics that same year.

He eventually returned to service during World War II as a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve, serving at home and in Australia and the Philippines. In the 1950s he retired as a commander, having earned many other awards during his service, including the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Purple Heart and the French Croix de Guerre.

Balch died in October 1980 at the age of 84. He’s buried at Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, California.

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