Just curious: Who were Iowans who earned Medals of Honor in World War II?

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Just curious: This occasional feature in the Des Moines Register aims to answer your questions about Iowa. Is there some place, event, lore, history or cultural quirk you're just curious about? Email your question to the Des Moines Register's Bill Steiden at wsteiden@registermedia.com.

It's been eight decades since America sent its troops across the oceans to fight in World War II, but many Iowa communities still remember their local service members from that war, and in particular, those who received the nation's highest military honor for going above and beyond the call of duty.

Ten Iowa soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their service in World War II, according to the Iowa Veterans Remembrance Project. They include a bomber pilot who went down with his plane so his crew could escape; a sergeant who fought off an attack despite an enemy tank blowing off his leg, and one of only seven Black soldiers from the war to receive the Medal of Honor.

Here are their stories, based on historical records and their official medal citations.

Vernon Baker, Clarinda

Vernon Baker
Vernon Baker

Vernon Baker was born in Wyoming but lived with family in Iowa as a child and graduated from Clarinda High School. In 1941, he enlisted in the Army and was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1943.

In April 1945, Baker led his platoon in an assault on a medieval Italian castle fortified by Germany. Crawling through enemy fire, Baker destroyed several observation and machinegun posts and then, when his men were forced to retreat, he drew enemy fire onto himself to allow his surviving men to evacuate their wounded. In total 19 of the 25 men in the platoon were killed or wounded during the battle.

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Baker, who was Black, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at the time. In the 1990s, a military commission reviewed World War II service records, leading to determinations that seven Black service members should have been awarded the Medal of Honor but had been rejected because of their race. Of those seven, only Baker, who retired from the army in 1968, was still alive to see his award upgraded in 1994. He died in 2010.

Arthur Beyer, Rock Township

In January 1945, Cpl. Arthur Beyer was serving as gunner on a tank destroyer in Belgium when his unit came under fire from German infantry armed with machine guns and antitank weapons. Leaving his vehicle, Beyer advanced on foot and single-handedly fought his way down a quarter-mile length of enemy emplacements and foxholes, killing eight, capturing 18 and silencing four heavy weapons.

Beyer lived in North Dakota after the war and died in 1965.

Herschel Briles, Colfax

Staff Sgt. Hershel Briles received his Medal of Honor for several actions in November 1944 as Allied forces pushed into Germany. A column of tank destroyers Briles was leading came under German artillery fire, suffering a direct hit on one vehicle. Briles and another soldier left their own vehicle, under fire, to rescue two badly wounded men from the stricken tank destroyer and extinguish the blaze.

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The next morning, Briles engaged a German infantry attack with his vehicle machine gun, forcing 55 of them to surrender and breaking a hole in the enemy lines. And later that day, after another of his tank destroyers was hit by enemy fire, he again left his vehicle to rescue two wounded crew members and extinguish the fire before the tank destroyer's ammunition could explode.

Briles survived the war and returned to Iowa, where he died in 1994.

Dale Christensen, Cameron Township

Dale Christensen joined the Army in 1940, and by July 1944 was a lieutenant leading a platoon with the 112th Cavalry Regiment in action in New Guinea.

Over the course of three days, Christensen single-handedly attacked and destroyed a Japanese machine gun position and personally scouted and led an assault that overran a Japanese defensive work, capturing numerous weapons. At one point during the combat, Christensen's rifle was shot out of his hands. He continued his advance, assaulting enemy positions with grenades.

On the third day of action, Christensen was killed leading an assault on another Japanese defensive post.

Darrell Lindsey, Jefferson

Darrell Lindsey enlisted as an aviation cadet barely a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor and trained as a bomber pilot. Throughout 1944, he flew 45 missions over France in B-26 medium bombers, before, during and after the D-Day invasion.

During Lindsey's 46th mission, in August 1944, he piloted the lead plane in a formation of 30 bombers to attack a key railroad bridge. Although the aircraft was struck by ground fire, Lindsey finished his bombing run, then held the wounded plane in a steady glide so other crew members could bail out, refusing his bombardier's offer to help him bail out as well. Shortly after the last of his crew left the plane, its fuel tank exploded, sending the bomber, with Lindsey still aboard, to the earth in flames.

Ralph Neppel, Willey

Ralph Neppel enlisted in the Army in March 1943, and fought in France as part of the 83rd Infantry Division. In December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, Neppel was a sergeant leading a machine gun squad defending the village of Birgel when they were attacked by a German tank supported by 20 infantry.

Neppel opened fire on the foot soldiers, killing several, but was then struck by an explosive round from the tank that wounded his entire squad. The blast severed one of his legs, damaged the other badly enough that it was later amputated, and knocked him back 10 yards. Neppel crawled back to his gun and resumed fire, killing the remaining infantry and forcing the tank to withdraw.

Despite losing his legs, Neppel returned to Iowa to marry his fiancée, manage the family farm, and work for decades as a contact representative for the Veterans Administration. He died of cancer in 1987, and the VA named a new wing of its Iowa City hospital for him in 1989.

Arlo Olson, Greenville

Born in Greenville, Iowa, Arlo Olson moved with his family to South Dakota at age 10, and was commissioned as an Army officer after graduating from the University of South Dakota in 1940.

In October 1943, serving as a captain with the 3rd Infantry Division in Italy, Olson led his troops across the chest-deep Volturno River through heavy enemy fire and eliminated several German machine gun nests. After two weeks of further combat, Olson led his soldiers in attacks on several German strongholds in the area of Mont San Nicola, capturing them, before finally being mortally wounded while scouting for further enemy positions. He died while being carried down the mountain.

Francis Pierce, Earlville

Francis Pierce turned 17 on Dec. 7, 1941 — the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. He enlisted in the Navy a week later, eventually being trained as a medical corpsman with the U.S. Marines. He served in a number of campaigns in the Pacific, including the Battle of Iwo Jima.

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There, in March 1945, Pierce was part of a medical party that was pinned down by enemy fire while transporting two casualties to an aid station, wounding a corpsman and two stretcher bearers. Pierce took charge of getting the group to shelter and repeatedly ran back to rescue the remaining wounded, fighting off attackers and carrying injured Marines on his back through enemy fire. The following day, Pierce was seriously wounded while leading a patrol but refused treatment and provided covering fire until other wounded were cared for.

After the war, Pierce moved to Michigan and began a career in law enforcement, culminating in a 10-year term as deputy chief of the Grand Rapids Police Department. He died of cancer in 1986.

Paul Riordan, Charles City

Second Lt. Paul Riordan joined the army in 1940 and fought with the 34th Infantry Division during the invasion of Italy. In February 1944, Riordan led an assault that successfully dislodged a German defensive position outside the city of Cassino, exposing himself to enemy fire to do so.

Five days later, during the assault on Cassino itself, Riordan's platoon was assigned to capture a German strongpoint. Riordan took the lead and was able to get past the outer ring of defenses, but his troops were cut off by the intense enemy fire. Knowing he was separated, Riordan assaulted the building by himself and slew several defenders before being killed.

John Thorson, Armstrong

The son of Norwegian immigrants, John Thorson graduated from Armstrong High School in 1941 and joined the Army the following year. Thorson served throughout the Pacific until October 1944, when he was killed while attacking a Japanese defensive position on Dagami Leyte in the Philippines.

Moving ahead of his platoon, Thorson singlehandedly attacked a trench manned by several enemy riflemen and was badly wounded. When the rest of the platoon approached, an enemy grenade landed among them, and Thorson moved to smother the blast with his body, dying instantly.

William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted at wrmorris2@registermedia.com or 715-573-8166.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: How many Medal of Honor recipients from World War II are from Iowa?