The Medal of Honor is a prestigious military award — in fact, the most prestigious of them all — and is only awarded to service members who have displayed immeasurable valor. Usually, Medal of Honor recipients have earned this award through a courageous act in battle; often saving multiple lives, and sometimes sacrificing their own.
This high praise has been given to 3,506 service members since 1863, when the medal was created. Over 40% of Medal of Honor recipients received the award during the Civil War, meaning it is less likely to receive one today.
The youngest Medal of Honor recipient is slightly disputed. If you google “Youngest Medal of Honor recipient,” you’ll see several names pop up. So, who really holds the title?
Who Is the Youngest Medal of Honor Recipient?
Technically, the youngest Medal of Honor recipient is a man named William H. Johnston. At the time of his service, he was a drummer boy in Company D of the 3rd Vermont Infantry.
Johnston joined the Union Army in December 1861, just months after his father, who enlisted in Company B as a corporal in the color guard. At the time, records listed Johnston as a mere 11 years old and five feet tall.
The Medal of Honor was awarded to Johnston after his actions during the Seven Days Battles in the Peninsula Campaign. The Seven Days Battles is the name for seven battles that took place over seven days near Richmond, Virginia in June 1862; Gen. Lee drove Gen. McClellan’s forces away from Richmond in a massive campaign that left the Union Army with 16,000 less soldiers, and the Confederate Army down 20,000.
During the battles, Johnston’s unit was overwhelmed by Lee’s army. They quickly retreated away from Richmond and down the Virginia Peninsula, following orders from McClellan. In their fear, and under threat from Confederate soldiers, most of the men abandoned their weapons and equipment so they could travel faster.
Young Johnston, however, clung to his drum the entire journey, refusing to surrender it. On July 4 he played it for his troops to lift their spirits. He had not yet celebrated his 12th birthday.
President Lincoln heard about Johnston’s courage, and on September 16, 1863 he was presented with the Medal of Honor. Johnston was just 13 years old. Any record of the citation has since been lost.
Youngest Medal of Honor Recipient
Even though Willie Johnston is technically the youngest person to have received the Medal of Honor, many don’t consider him the real youngest Medal of Honor recipient. Why?
Well, during the Civil War, the Medal of Honor was the only real military award. The Purple Heart had not been awarded since the Revolutionary War, and it wouldn’t become active again until World War I. So, it was a lot easier to earn a Medal of Honor than it is in the modern military.
It is worth noting that Congress later reviewed and withdrew many of the Medals of Honor that were rewarded. Johnston was allowed to keep his.
So, while Willie Johnston is the youngest Medal of Honor recipient, let’s take a look at some other people who received the Medal of Honor at ridiculously young ages.
Jacklyn H. Lucas served as a Marine in World War II. After his father passed away when Lucas was only 10, his mother sent him to a nearby military institute, where he thrived as a cadet captain and captain of the football team.
In August 1942, Lucas enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. He was only 14 years old, which wasn’t allowed in the military, but he claimed to be 17 and forged his mother’s name on the parental consent form. Lucas was determined to be a Marine.
At basic training in Parris Island, Lucas qualified as a sharpshooter. He was then assigned to Naval Air Station Jacksonville, where he qualified as a heavy machine gun crewman. He was subsequently sent to both San Diego and Pearl Harbor for training, and was promoted to private first class.
But training wasn’t what Lucas joined the Marines for. On January 10, 1945, Lucas deserted his unit and snuck on board the USS Deuel, which set sail for Iwo Jima. He turned himself in to the commanding officer of C Company, Capt. Robert Dunlap, who demoted him to private. However, Lucas was allowed to stay, and he was given a post as a rifleman.
Lucas’ valorous action took place on February 19, 1945, a few short days after he had reached the age of 17. After landing on Iwo Jima with the 5th Division, Lucas and three other Marines were making their way to an enemy airstrip when they ducked into a trench for cover. In a trench next to them were 11 Japanese soldiers. Outnumbered by almost 3 to 1, the Americans opened fire on the Japanese, who quickly returned fire and threw two grenades into their trench.
After he saw the grenades, Lucas took immediate action. “Grenades!” He shouted. He leapt over a fellow Marine, covering one grenade with his body, and pulled the other underneath him. One grenade exploded, severely injuring Lucas to the point that his comrades thought he was dead. The other was left unexploded in his fist.
Eventually, Lucas was found by a passing unit, who alerted a nearby Navy corpsman. The corpsman provided first aid and protected Lucas from enemy fire. He was evacuated from the trench and treated at several field hospitals before arriving in San Francisco and undergoing 21 surgeries to save his life.
After the surgeries, Lucas was left with some 200 pieces of metal shrapnel in his body, and he was subsequently medically discharged from the Marine Corps. On October 5 of that same year, he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman, along with Capt. Robert Dunlap, nine other Marines, and three sailors. He was only 17 years old — making him the youngest Medal of Honor recipient of the 20th century.
Miraculously, he rejoined the Marines in 1961 and reached the rank of captain. He served in the 82nd Airborne Division and managed to survive a training jump where both of his parachutes failed to open.
Kyle Carpenter is the youngest living Medal of Honor recipient. He was also a United States Marine.
Lance Corporal Carpenter deployed to Helmand Province in Afghanistan in July 2010. On November 10, Carpenter and his team were providing security for locals in the Marjah District when they came under attack by Taliban insurgents. A hand grenade landed dangerously near Carpenter and his fellow Marines.
“Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own safety, Lance Corporal Carpenter moved toward the grenade in an attempt to shield his fellow Marine from the deadly blast. When the grenade detonated, his body absorbed the brunt of the blast, severely wounding him, but saving the life of his fellow Marine,” reads part of his citation.
Carpenter suffered multiple wounds in his face and arm, and lost his right eye. He was awarded the Medal of Honor on June 19, 2014, at the age of 24.
Youngest Medal of Honor Recipient
So, to recap, the youngest Medal of Honor recipient is Willie Johnston, who received the award at the age of 13 after his brave actions during the Civil War.
But Johnston received his Medal of Honor in a time where it was the only military award being presented — and also at a time where 11-year-old boys were allowed to fight in war.
A more accurate representation of the youngest Medal of Honor recipient may be Jack Lucas, who received his at the age of 17 after his actions during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Even still, Lucas illegally forged his mother’s signature and lied about his age in order to join the Marine Corps at the age of 14.
And finally, the youngest living Medal of Honor recipient is Corporal Kyle Carpenter, who selflessly continues to fundraise for service members and Veterans after being medically discharged himself in 2013. Carpenter received his Medal of Honor at 24, and is currently only 30 years old.
For more, read about the most decorated U.S. soldier of all time.