Tracking Down False Heroes
Medal of Honor recipients go after impostors
By Michael Taylor,
31 May 1999
The tale of Fred Renz is truly awe-inspiring -- a fighter pilot in the Korean War, he swooped into enemy territory under intense, hostile fire to save the lives of 152 Marines and soldiers.
And then, 40 years later, his heroism finally appreciated by a grateful nation, a Medal of Honor is awarded by the president in the name of Congress, and the Menlo Park real estate executive is written up in the local weekly paper.
In Florida, retired bread truck driver Jackie Albert Stern, Medal of Honor resplendent on his chest, gets his picture taken at the local sheriff's office. And in Illinois, Judge Michael F. O'Brien let it be known that he had not one but two Medals of Honor for valorous Navy service off the coast of Lebanon in 1958.
The only problem is that these ``heroes'' were fakes, and the medals were lies.
They were fabrications of war-story imaginations by men who, in some cases, let the farce drag on for years, deceiving their families, their friends and even high-ranking military officers who warmly welcomed them to countless Memorial Day and Veterans Day parades.
Now, though, some real Medal of Honor recipients are going after the frauds and exposing them. These hunters are led by an 80-year-old retired Marine Corps colonel who was awarded his Medal of Honor for actions during a night of terror on Guadalcanal that left his platoon dead around him and 920 Japanese soldiers lying on the ground.
Mitchell Paige is a no-nonsense ex-leatherneck -- he was a platoon sergeant on Guadalcanal -- who is making it his life's mission to track down and expose Medal of Honor fakers. He has been doing this for more than 40 years and, so far, he says, he has bagged 500 of them.
He says he finds them all over -- at parades, at military bases and mentioned in newspaper stories and obituaries. Some of the impostors have been in the service, and some have not. Paige said he was once invited by a major general friend of his to ride with another medal recipient at a parade at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, a morning's drive from Paige's home in La Quinta (Riverside County).
When he got there, "the guy was sitting in the car, and I walked up and took one look and told my friend, 'John, I'm going to watch the parade from the stands. He's a phony, an impostor.' '' The man, posing as a Navy captain, had never gotten the medal and, moreover, he had never been in the service. Years later, Paige got a call from a suspicious Marine sergeant who was officiating at a full-honors Navy funeral. The Twentynine Palms impostor was back -- this time as a corpse.
Paige carries a small notebook containing the names of every living recipient. "If a guy says, 'I'm a Medal of Honor winner,' I reach in my pocket and look him up.''
Because there are only 157 living Medal of Honor recipients, and they all know of each other through the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, it is a good bet that Paige will know who is real and who is not.
"I tell them, 'You're a fake, you're a fraud, and you're an impostor.' ''
Frequently, he will turn them in to the federal government -- Paige has been officially designated as the Medal of Honor society's "special liaison'' to the FBI. But posing as a Medal of Honor winner is not something that will send a man to prison for life. Paige lobbied to have the penalty beefed up from a $250 fine; now, offenders can spend up to a year in jail or be fined up to $100,000. Yet sentences handed down in the few cases that have been prosecuted so far have not called for stiff punishment.
Instead, say the real recipients, the point is to expose the frauds and let the public know that the medal is not awarded for any one person, but, in a sense, for everyone who ever went to battle and particularly for those who did not come home.
To comprehend what makes Paige and the other recipients so angry about impostors, it helps to understand the aura that surrounds the medal, the mystique it has generated ever since it was created in 1861.
Nearly 40 million men and women have fought in America's wars since the start of the Civil War -- including more than 16 million in World War II and nearly 9 million in Vietnam < WEBMASTER NOTICE: The figure of 9 million is misleading. GO HERE to read a more accurate accounting of the facts > -- but only 3,410 have been recipients of the Medal of Honor, 574 of them posthumously.
The medal is awarded for such selfless and demanding service that it is, as the saying goes and as the citations read, "above and beyond'' the call of normal duty.
It is no prettier than lesser medals -- the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star -- but when an enlisted man walks into a room wearing that star- shaped medallion, generals may well snap off a salute and come up to pay homage.
The medal has its own lore. You don't "win'' it, like an Olympic gold medal, because nobody sets out to win a Medal of Honor. When the president pins it on your chest, you become a "recipient.'' And it is not just for you.
``I accepted the medal for the many people who got nothing,'' says Bob Kerrey, the Democratic senator from Nebraska who was awarded the Medal of Honor after leading a Navy SEAL team into a horrendous battle in Vietnam in March 1969. Kerrey lost part of his right leg to a grenade blast.
"The way medals are handed out,'' he said, "you have to have a (military) action, and it has to be witnessed. There were a lot of very, very brave men and women whose actions weren't recognized. I received the medal on behalf of them.''
Although Paige has been going after the frauds since the 1950s, it is only in the past few years that the government has been taking the problem a bit more seriously.
The campaign to expose Medal of Honor fakes and take them to court began in 1995, when FBI agent Thomas Cottone Jr. was assigned to check out a tip about the illegal sale of medals at a military collectibles show near his office in West Paterson, N.J.
Cottone and another agent bought two Medals of Honor, for $510 and $485, respectively, and arrested the seller. Eventually, the FBI tracked the medals to HLI Lordship Industries Inc., a Hauppauge, N.Y., firm that was the official government contractor for the medals.
In December 1996, the firm admitted selling 300 unauthorized medals for $75 each from 1991 to 1994 and was fined $80,000.
From the HLI Lordship case, the FBI was able to uncover eight impostors and develop cases against them, but by then, several other fakes were already being informally exposed.
Perhaps the most flagrant case of fraud was that of Michael F. O'Brien, an Illinois Circuit Court judge.
When O'Brien applied to Illinois authorities for special Medal of Honor license plates in 1992, the state checked with Lieutenant Colonel Harold Fritz, a medal recipient who was still in the Army at the time, stationed in Illinois. It was the beginning of the end for O'Brien.
"I told them (O'Brien's) citation was fabricated,'' Fritz said. ``I said he was not a recipient, and I said I'd go after him myself. I thought it was despicable, and it was dishonoring all the veterans in the U.S.''
Fritz did go after him, and in 1995, faced with the choice of prosecution or resigning from the bench, O'Brien chose to quit his judgeship and go into private practice.
Reached at his law office recently, O'Brien conceded that "it simply was an erratic act. . . . It was during a period of time when I had been drinking, and things like that come back to haunt you. I have nothing further to say.''
Jackie Albert Stern, on the other hand, had plenty to say when he was sentenced. Stern was the Florida retiree who bought his Medal of Honor at a flea market and was caught by a sheriff's detective who coaxed him into coming down to the station and having his picture taken with the medal on, a requisite for prosecution in federal court.
When Stern was sentenced to one year of probation in December 1996, he was ordered to write a letter of apology to every living recipient of the Medal of Honor and have the letter published in the newspaper on Memorial Day 1997.
"I had no right to wear this prestigious medal as I had done nothing of merit to earn it,'' he wrote. "I know that my actions have cheapened the honor of those who have received this valiant award, and my pitiful attempt and selfish quest for family recognition has tarnished the dignity of all the brave men and women on whom this medal was legitimately bestowed.''
Fred Renz, the Menlo Park businessman, did not have to write a letter. When he was sentenced in December 1997, after pleading guilty to unauthorized wearing of the medal, then-federal magistrate Joan Brennan in San Francisco fined him $2,500, gave him a year's probation and ordered him into drug, alcohol and psychiatric counseling.
Renz's fraud came to light after a story about his "exploits'' in Korea was published in the weekly Menlo Park newspaper, the Country Almanac, in August 1996. In the story, Renz claimed his Medal of Honor was the result of a mission he flew against North Korean troops on Dec. 7, 1956. In fact, the Korean War cease-fire was signed in July 1953, when Renz was 16 years old.
Renz gave The Chronicle a copy of what he said were his discharge papers, which said he entered the Air Force in June 1955 at age 19 as an enlisted man, and by the time he left, in May 1959, he was a major, a rank several retired Air Force colonels and a three- star general said was impossible to attain so quickly.
The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, given a copy of the papers that Renz provided, said his original records were destroyed in a records center fire in 1973. Cheryl Betts, an official at the records center, said her office is trying to reconstruct Renz's records from other sources. She also said, ``We're looking into the discrepancies'' on Renz's discharge papers.
The form also said he won a number of medals, including the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal in May 1957. The Air Force told The Chronicle that medal was created by Congress in July 1960 and is usually awarded only to generals. Renz would not provide copies of the general orders and official citations that normally go with armed forces medals.
Cottone, the FBI agent, said he was tipped off on the Renz story and alerted the San Francisco FBI, which investigated the case leading to Renz's prosecution.
A week after the newspaper story appeared, Renz backpedaled and told the paper that, after all, he did not have a Medal of Honor.
"I proclaimed I was a recipient based on my war record,'' Renz said the other day, "but I admittedly wasn't. This is not me. Why the hell did I do this thing?''
Renz could not provide much more of an explanation for why he did this thing, but Paul Bucha, president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, he was awarded the medal for action in Vietnam in 1968, said he thinks America has put such a premium on winning that people think their normal lives and self-images are not good enough. So they try to boost their image by wearing the Medal of Honor, even if they never deserved it.
"We rationalize everything, including behavior that is totally unacceptable, all for the purpose of winning,'' Bucha said. ``In that context, you can understand why judges or millionaires would say, 'What I was was insufficient, so I must try to be someone I am not.'
"Why do we use connections to get into a college we normally couldn't get into? Why do we use human growth hormones in the Olympics? For that matter, why do we send NBA basketball players to the Olympics? Second place is not good enough. We've placed such tremendous value on cosmetics. Winning has become everything.
Attention: If you believe that someone is falsely wearing, or falsely stating that he is a recipient of the Medal of Honor, then GO HERE to report the individual to the proper authorities.
Paige was a 24-year-old Marine Corps platoon sergeant on Guadalcanal in October 1942 and was outnumbered 30-to-1 by an advancing Japanese force bent on capturing Henderson Field, a crucial airfield in the Solomon Islands.
During the night, Paige and his platoon, down to 32 men, kept firing their machine guns until all except Paige were dead or seriously wounded. Even though he had been hit with shrapnel and had a Japanese bayonet plunged through his hand, Paige, all alone by now, fired back at the Japanese until his gun was destroyed and then moved from machine gun to machine gun, ``never ceasing his withering fire against the advancing hordes until reinforcements finally arrived.'' Then he formed a new line and ``led a bayonet charge, driving the enemy back and preventing a breakthrough in our lines.'' When the smoke cleared, there were 920 dead Japanese soldiers.
Paige was later commissioned as a lieutenant and stayed in the Marine Corps after World War II. He retired as a colonel in 1964 and now devotes his time to giving guest lectures on battlefield tactics to young Marines, attending parades as a Medal of Honor recipient and going after Medal of Honor impostors. He lives in La Quinta, near Palm Springs, in Riverside County.
Rank and organization: Platoon Sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps.
Place and date: Solomon Islands, 26 October 1942.
Entered service at: Pennsylvania.
Born: 31 August 1918, Charleroi, Pa.
For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty while serving with a company of marines in combat against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands on 26 October 1942. When the enemy broke through the line directly in front of his position, P/Sgt. Paige, commanding a machinegun section with fearless determination, continued to direct the fire of his gunners until all his men were either killed or wounded. Alone, against the deadly hail of Japanese shells, he fought with his gun and when it was destroyed, took over another, moving from gun to gun, never ceasing his withering fire against the advancing hordes until reinforcements finally arrived. Then, forming a new line, he dauntlessly and aggressively led a bayonet charge, driving the enemy back and preventing a breakthrough in our lines. His great personal valor and unyielding devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
Mitchell Paige, 85, Guadalcanal Hero, Dies
LA QUINTA, Calif., Nov. 17, 2003 (AP) Mitchell Paige, a retired Marine colonel who received the Medal of Honor for heroism in the Battle of Guadalcanal in World War II, died on Saturday, November 15, at his home here. He was 85.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said Michael Landes, a family spokesman.
On Oct. 26, 1942, Colonel Paige, then a platoon sergeant, was leading a platoon of 33 men when the Japanese broke through the line directly in front of his position on Guadalcanal, part of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific Ocean. With all the men in his machine-gunner group killed or wounded, he continued to fire on advancing troops until reinforcements arrived. He then led a bayonet charge and drove the enemy's line back.
A few weeks after the battle, Maj. Gen. A. A. Vandergrift, commander of the First Marine Division and later commandant of the Marine Corps, commended Sergeant Paige: "Son, that was an important hill that you and your men held. It was the last major Japanese effort to dislodge us and capture the airstrip."
Sergeant Paige was given a battlefield promotion to second lieutenant. He retired in 1964 as a colonel.
After the war, he wrote a book, "A Marine Named Mitch," and served as the model for a G.I. Joe Marine doll. Colonel Paige was also involved in veterans' causes and worked to identify Medal of Honor impostors.
A son of Serbian immigrants, Colonel Paige was born in Charleroi, Pa., in 1918. He is survived by his wife, Marilyn Paige; 6 children; 15 grandchildren; and 6 great-grandchildren.
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© 1999 by Neil Mishalov