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Medal of Honor Monday: Marine Corps Pfc. Harold Epperson

June 22, 2020 | BY Katie Lange , DOD News

Many young Americans die in war to save others, and the courage and selflessness they show in making those decisions are truly inspiring. Marine Corps Pfc. Harold Glenn Epperson was a month shy of his 21st birthday when he died giving his life for his fellow Marines on a small Pacific island during World War II. 

A man in a World War II uniform and cap smiles.
Harold Glenn Epperson
Marine Corps Private First Class Harold Glenn Epperson.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 200618-M-ZZ999-378

Epperson was born July 14, 1923, in Akron, Ohio, and grew up in the nearby town of Massillon. He graduated from high school in 1941 and worked for Goodyear Aircraft for a bit before enlisting in the Marine Corps Reserve on Dec. 12, 1942, a year into the U.S. involvement in World War II.

Epperson was called to active duty and assigned as a machine gunner to the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, 2nd Marine Division. The unit was based in the Pacific and served with distinction in November 1943 during the Battle of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. 

Several months later, the Allies were earning more victories and pushing their way across the Pacific. By June of 1944, the Allies had their sights on Saipan in the Mariana Islands. If they could gain control of the island, U.S. long-range B-29 bombers would be within striking distance of the Japanese mainland.

Marines stormed the beaches of Saipan on June 15, beginning a fierce three-week battle, ending in victory on July 9.

Five men stand on and around a captured Japanese World War II tank near palm trees and a mountain.
World War II
Marines with the 2nd Marine Division use a captured Japanese tank in Saipan in 1944.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 440706-N-ZZ999-347

On June 25, Epperson was in the middle of it, firing from his machine gun emplacement at Japanese forces who attacked his battalion in the predawn darkness. The young private refused to give up his position, continuously firing at the infiltrating enemy until they aborted their attack.

Suddenly, a Japanese soldier the Marines had assumed was dead sprang up from the ground and hurled a hand grenade into the machine gun emplacement where Epperson was posted.

Without hesitating, Epperson threw himself on top of the device, absorbing the brunt of the explosion. He sacrificed himself to save his fellow Marines.

Five Marines in helmets stand in a hole.
Foxhole
U.S. Marines stand in a foxhole near the front lines of combat on Saipan, July 1, 1944.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 440701-N-ZZ999-649

Two weeks later, on July 9, the U.S. flag was raised in victory over Saipan. For his selflessness, Epperson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. It was presented to his mother in a ceremony on July 4, 1945, at Tiger Stadium in the town where he grew up. About 8,500 people came to honor him.

Epperson was initially buried in Ohio, but after a lot of his family moved south, he was reinterred at Winchester Cemetery in Winchester, Kentucky.

Epperson's name graces the front of several buildings between the two towns, but the largest honor bestowed upon him was the naming of the Navy destroyer USS Epperson. The ship was commissioned in March 1949 and served throughout the Korean War.

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.