When Gayle Alvarez first started researching which Idaho veterans have received the Medal of Honor, she quickly found it would be no easy task.
Alvarez, a veteran of the Idaho Army National Guard and former board member for the Idaho Military History Museum, noticed an exhibit on Idaho Medal of Honor recipients in the Adjutant General’s Office at Gowen Field’s National Guard headquarters. She began digging into military records in hopes of highlighting the medal recipients for the museum’s newsletter.
Soon she learned that, for many years, the military’s methods for awarding the medals and keeping track of recipients were disorganized. So disorganized that many Idaho recipients weren’t on featured on the wall of photos in then-Gen. John F. Kane’s office — and some recipients may have never even known they received the award, which is bestowed on heroes — those who go above and beyond the call of duty.
“I took the information to the general and said, ‘Sir, your wall isn’t big enough,’” Alvarez said in an interview.
In more than 20 years of research, she determined that 48 Idaho-affiliated veterans have earned the medal. In some cases, the soldiers were buried in graves with no mention of their military service. In other cases, records showed incorrect dates of service and other errors or gaps — problems Alvarez worked to rectify.
“These men earned the highest award that can be presented to a member of the military,” she said. “To have their information be incorrect or not available ... it’s just wrong.”
Her goal was to ensure their legacies wouldn’t fade into history. On Monday, Idaho joins an even bigger effort to preserve those memories.
Memorializing Idaho’s Medal of Honor recipients
The designation is part of a move, first spurred in Oregon, to rename the coast-to-coast highway in each state it traverses. U.S. 20 stretches from Newport, on the Oregon Coast, to Boston.
In Idaho, Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, jumped at the chance to sponsor the bill.
“I’m a retired colonel out of the Army,” Syme said. “Being a veteran myself, I was all over that. I wanted to be involved.”
He first heard about the campaign from the local branch of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
“It was an honor for the [Order], along with many other veterans organizations, to facilitate with Rep. Syme and Sen. [Abby] Lee to get it through the Legislature and to the governor’s desk,” said Ned Barker, commander of the Department of Idaho Military Order of the Purple Heart.
The Idaho Transportation Department will foot the $30,000 bill to provide between six and eight signs commemorating the new name, Syme said.
“The signs will be a reminder of what these extraordinary Americans sacrificed to keep our country free,” Barker said in an email. “It will honor Bob Maxwell and Thomas Norris, the only living recipients with ties to Idaho, and all the others across this great country.”
Alvarez said many people don’t realize there have been so many medal recipients in Idaho. She hopes the highway will serve as a reminder.
“The fact that this highway was approved, it brings this all to light,” she said. “It’s part of our heritage, part of our legacy.”
Idaho veterans’ ties to Medal of Honor highway
As it happens, more than half of Idaho’s 48 Medal of Honor recipients have ties that trace back to communities the highway traverses, from Parma at its west end to Targhee Pass at its east. Eight medals were earned in Idaho during battles with American Indians. Multiple recipients are buried in Idaho, and several others were born here.
Here are the recipients whose histories intersect with U.S. 20 in Idaho:
▪ Lt. Col. John Green, Boise: Green served in the Army during the Indian Wars Campaigns, earning a medal in 1873 at a battle in Lava Beds, California. He died in Boise in 1908 after serving as commander of Fort Boise. He’s buried in Morris Hill Cemetery.
▪ Tech. Cpl. Robert D. Maxwell, Boise: Maxwell, born in Boise, was drafted into the Army during World War II, where he earned the Medal of Honor, as well as several other honors during his service. He lives in Oregon.
▪ Col. Reginald Myers, Boise: Myers was born in Boise and served as an officer in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, earning his medal in 1950. He’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
▪ Cpl. Dan D. Schoonover, Boise: Schoonover was killed in action in 1953 during the Korean War. A monument stands in his honor in Boise’s Morris Hill Cemetery.
▪ Col. John R. Kane, Boise and Mountain Home: Kane served as the Base Commander at Gowen Field in Boise in 1944 and later commanded the 580th Air Resupply and Communications Wing at Mountain Home Air Force Base. He received the Medal of Honor in 1943 during World War II.
▪ Cpl. Nicholas Maher, Boise: A soldier in the Army during the Indian Campaigns, Maher resided in the Soldiers Home in Boise before his death in 1916. His award was bestowed on Nicholas Meaher. It wasn’t until 2011 that research showed they were one and the same.
▪ Col. Charles Varnum, Boise: Varnum served in the Indian Campaigns, earning his medal during a battle in South Dakota in 1890. He later worked as the instructor of the National Guard of Idaho in Boise in the early 1900s.
▪ Capt. Arthur J. Jackson, Boise: Jackson, an Oregonian, lived in Idaho for 44 years, where he eventually died in 2017. He served in the Marine Corps during World War II and is buried in the Idaho Veterans Cemetery in Boise.
▪ Maj. Ed Freeman, Boise: Freeman, an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War, retired to Boise where he died in 2008. He is buried in the Idaho Veterans Cemetery.
▪ Gurdon H. Barter, Boise: Barter served as a Navy landsman during the Civil War. Though two North Idaho cemeteries claim to have his grave, his medal is on display at the Idaho Military History Museum in Boise.
▪ Pfc. Herbert A. Littleton, Nampa: Littleton was killed in action during the Korean War in 1951 as a member of the Marine Corps. Littleton moved to Nampa with his family in 1950, and he’s buried there in the Kohler Lawn Cemetery. A Nampa post office is named in his honor.
▪ Col. Bernard F. Fisher, Kuna and Boise: Fisher grew up in Kuna and retired there after earning the Medal of Honor for his service in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. He is buried in the Idaho Veterans Cemetery in Boise.
▪ Pvt. James Kephart, Gooding: Kephart served in the Army during the Civil War. He later moved to Gooding, where he died and is buried in the Elmwood Cemetery.
▪ Chief Watertender Oscar V. Peterson, Richfield: Peterson was killed in action during WWII while serving in the Navy. His wife later moved to the small town of Richfield,north of Twin Falls. A marker was placed alongside his wife’s grave there in memory of Peterson.
▪ Pfc. William K. Nakamura, Minidoka: A Japanese-American, Nakamura enlisted from Hunt, Idaho, after his family was interned at the relocation camp in Minidoka during WWII. Nakamura was killed in action in 1944.
▪ Staff Sgt. David Bleak, Arco: Bleak earned the award for his actions in the Korean War in 1952. He was born in Idaho Falls and a marker in his honor is in the Lost River Cemetery in Moore, near the highway’s passage through Arco. His Army medal is on display at the Idaho Military History Museum.
▪ Pvt. Nathan K. Van Noy Jr., Grace: Born in Grace, Idaho, Van Noy enlisted in the Army from Pocatello during WWII. He was killed in action in 1943, and he’s buried in Grace.
▪ Pfc. Leonard C. Brostrom, Preston: Brostrom was killed in action during WWII while serving in the Army. A native of Preston, he’s buried in the local cemetery.
▪ Sgt. James Edmund Johnson, Pocatello: Johnson was born in Pocatello and died in 1950 while serving in the Marine Corps during the Korean War.
▪ Staff Sgt. Maynard H. Smith, Pocatello: Smith trained with the 413th Bomb Squadron in Pocatello, where he was promoted to staff sergeant in 1942.
▪ Pvt. Thomas C. Neibaur, Sugar City: Neibaur, an Army soldier in World War I, was born in Sharon, Idaho, and enlisted from Sugar City, where he worked. He died in 1942 and is buried alongside his wife in Sugar City. A park in the town bears his name and features a memorial in his honor.
▪ Pvt. Richard Clamor Heise, Heise: He was the founder of Heise Hot Springs, where he is now buried. Heise served in the Army during the Indian Campaigns.
▪ Pvt. Wilfred Clark; Cpl. Harry Garland; Brig. Gen. James Jackson; Pvt. William H. Jones and Ordnance Sgt. Henry Wilkens, Camas Prairie: Five of the eight Medals of Honor awarded for battles in Idaho were given for conflicts fought during the Indian Campaigns on the Camas Meadows near the Montana Border. Highway 20 exits Idaho here.
To learn more about Idaho’s Medal of Honor recipients, including the recipients with ties to Central and North Idaho, visit museum.mil.idaho.gov/Moh.html.