Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of stories detailing valor awards for service members whose heroism was overlooked at the outset; whose awards were lost, or never received by family members; or whose actions otherwise fell victim to some type of oversight. For more stories of heroism, past and present, visit our searchable Hall of Valor database; the hall's curator, Doug Sterner, assisted in story selection and research.
The man: Army Staff Sgt. Paul Alexander.
The moment: Barely a week after the D-Day invasion, Alexander and the men of G Company, 60th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division, found themselves held up by heavy German machine gun fire near Normandy. Alexander led his men forward "across fire-swept terrain," according to his Distinguished Service Cross citation, suffering serious wounds in the process.
Despite that, Alexander, "personally threw hand grenades into four enemy machine gun positions, completely silencing the guns and inflicting numerous casualties on the enemy," per the citation. He would not survive the battle.
His actions "exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 9th Infantry Division, and the United States Army," according to his citation.
And his family never knew it.
The medal: Alexander's story is the stuff of a great war movie, so it's not surprising that more than 45 years after D-Day, "Saving Private Ryan" inspired Monty McDaniel to research his uncle's heroism.
He knew very little about Alexander's actions, only that his uncle was buried in France at the Normandy American Cemetery. What few details were known by family members weren't spoken about. He remembered a visit in the late 1950s by a man who had served with Alexander and shared powerful stories — "He held my uncle in his arms when he died" — but not the whole picture.
So in 1999, McDaniel made what would now be a natural first step but wasn't at the time — a visit to the internet, where he found the American Battle Monuments website.
"I typed in his name on that site, and it came up 'Distinguished Service Cross,' " McDaniel said. "And nobody had ever told us about it."
Staff Sgt. Paul Alexander's grave in Normandy, France.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Monty McDaniel
Seeing that his uncle had earned the military’s second-highest medal for valor left him "flabbergasted," he recalled, but it also left him with a lot of work to do: Tracking down the right officials to learn more about the award took nearly a year, and acquiring supporting paperwork and eventually requesting a copy of the medal for his aunt took even longer.
His online odyssey also put him in contact with Sterner, and it started what has become the retired teacher's second act — digging up similar forgotten honors to add to the Hall of Valor database.
McDaniel found out in a hurry that he wouldn't have to look far: He dug into the cases two of the other men in the 60th Infantry Regiment who'd received DSCs for their actions and found out their families had no knowledge of the honor. One of the men, Staff Sgt. Lawrence W. Gunderson, had nine brothers and sisters who were still alive, McDaniel said.
Key quote: "I've contacted over 200 men, other families that my uncle served with, sent them information," McDaniel said. "They've sent me pictures and things. One family, his dad was one of my uncle's best friends, he said, '[My dad] talked about your uncle all the time. Constantly.' … He was well-liked, I know that, and he was a good soldier."