CHARLES MCGAHA WORE THE CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR. HE SURVIVED A SUNDAY AT PEARL HARBOR AND THE JUNGLES OF THE PACIFIC. BUT AFTER 40 SLASHES OF A KNIFE, HE DIED ON A DAMP BATHROOM FLOOR ON THE SOUTH SIDE OF COLUMBUS.
People who met Charles McGaha never imagined they were shaking hands with a hero. He was reserved, sometimes grumpy. He operated a small taxicab company out of a one-room block building at 1464 Benning Rd., and when folks on the south side of Columbus saw him coming his feisty Spitz dog — the one he called Pluto — was usually yapping at his heels.
His company’s modest headquarters had once been a Spur gas station. Rusting pumps were still outside, a reminder to merchants in neighboring businesses of the time a former owner caused a commotion by hiring young girls in short shorts to pump gas.
Mr. Mack never drew that kind of attention to himself. The main thing people knew about him was that he ate bananas every day and that he kept his little dogs’ tummies full of fried chicken from Krystal.
The first time he was really noticed was on Aug. 8, 1984. Wayne Sheppard, an officer with the Columbus Police Department, was dispatched to Benning Road on a possible 7100. Mr. Mack had been murdered and his body was discovered on the damp floor of a dilapidated bathroom floor, stabbed 40 times by an unknown assailant.
Only then did the people of Columbus realize that Charles McGaha was a bona fide hero — a member of our military’s most prestigious honor society. In 1946, a year after the end of World War II, this man in the jaunty hat and beat up pickup truck received he Congressional Medal of Honor.
During the war, McGaha dodged Japanese machine gun fire, only to become a nearly forgotten crime stat in his adopted hometown. He managed to live 70 years unnoticed — except for a single heroic day in the Philippines in 1945.
As a newspaperman I was drawn to his compelling story and the questions it inspired. How did a person who had received our nation’s highest military honor end up dispatching taxis? Why was he so reluctant to let others know about his glorious past? Finally, how did a war hero end up a victim of a second rate crime?
I was haunted by this unlikely story in 1984, and as Veteran’s Day 2016 approaches I have thought of Mr. Mack and my efforts 32 years ago to get to know a man that I had never met — a man I did not know existed until he was gone.
His death could have been just another homicide, but that historic medal would not go away. There were headlines, eulogies, 21-gun salutes, honor guards and laying on top of his flag-draped coffin was his Medal of Honor. He could have been buried at Arlington National Cemetery but his widow, Jeanette Large McGaha, chose to lay him to rest at Union Cemetery in Cocke County, Tenn. — not far from his boyhood home.
This was where I entered the story.
I’m a reporter so naturally I was curious about the years we knew nothing about. Like Sgt. Alvin York — a war hero of another age who looked a lot like Gary Cooper — McGaha came out of the Great Smoky Mountains. So was there something about those hills?
I went to Tennessee. I went to Benning Road. I heard home folks in Cocke County talk about living down the road from his family. I heard how he was a hard businessman but a soft touch who hired taxi drivers no one else would employ — as long as they didn’t mistreat his dogs. When his drivers gathered around the office and told war stories, McGaha would get up and leave.
“I had 60 cents when I started with him and I had four cabs and a new Olds when I left,” said Larry Eckert, a longtime employee that McGaha treated like a son. “I owe him a lot. But he was hard. He wouldn’t bend. He was just Mr. Mack.”
They didn’t line up a parade when McGaha got out of the Army in 1961 after 24 years of service. He quietly mustered out at Fort Benning and he never left Columbus. As a civilian, he ran a gas station, an insurance agency and then the cab company.
He had grown up with nothing and he made sure his pockets were never empty again. People who knew him didn’t know how much he was worth though. They would have been shocked to learn that he and Jeanette lived in a palatial house in Green Island Hills.
In a military town, he blended in well. He never consciously stayed away from the marching bands, the flags and the patriotic ceremonies, but when he went on post he preferred to be just another retired soldier.
Ann Hill was in charge of protocol for many of those events at Fort Benning. Her job as a civil servant was to deal with people and to be sure they were in their proper place. At one ceremony she noticed a man she didn’t know wandering around the fringes.
“He was walking aimlessly, looking for his place,” she said. “For some reason I decided he was a VIP. I asked if I could help him and he told me who he was. ‘Mr. McGaha,’ I said. ‘We have a place for Medal of Honor winners over there.’ I believe he would have stood there in the crowd if I hadn’t spoken to him.”
On the night he died, McGaha was anything but reserved. There were indications of a bitter struggle in that tiny bathroom. Eckert was not at all surprised. “Mr. Mack would give a buzz saw a battle,” he said. “Whoever got him got him when he wasn’t looking.”
THE BLOOD OF TRADITION
You don’t find Cosby, Tenn., it finds you.
It’s a village 18 miles from Gatlinburg, 50 miles from Knoxville and 15 miles from the North Carolina line. For McGaha this was home. I flew into Knoxville and drove a rental car up Interstate 40 into the mountains. I spent time in a public library studying newspaper clippings from 1946 — the year President Harry Truman honored their favorite son. It was still a community washed in the blood of tradition. Told I was writing about McGaha, people opened their arms.
In Bobby Large’s Grocery Store, hanging over the feed counter, was a photo of the original owner. Wallace Large was remembered in his World War II uniform. D.R. Large lived across the highway. He was 82 years old. He remembered when Charles McGaha and his family lived on the land adjoining his. He also remembered when his neighbor came home a hero.
People also liked to talk about Samuel McGaha, a Revolutionary War ancestor of Mr. Mack. A local historian shared how when Samuel first came there Indians killed seven of the settlers. “Samuel went out with his men and killed seven Indians,” Duay O’Neill told me.
Leota Matthews, 88, was living in a nursing home in Tennessee when I went to see her. She had a picture of Charles McGaha and his grandmother that she had clipped from the local newspaper tucked away in a booklet that she clutched in her lap.
Miss Leota cried when she talked about her old friend. “He was like one of my own,” she said. “That’s why I cry. I was at his funeral, but we couldn’t see him. They kept the casket shut.”
Conversations always got around to The Medal.
Citations describing the extraordinary actions of Medal of Honor recipients read like fiction. What those heroes did on faraway battlefields usually defy description. Stories often tell of them saving the lives of others. The official citation that explains Master Sgt. Charles McGaha’s actions on Feb. 7, 1945 is no different:
He displayed conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity. His platoon and 1 other from Company G were pinned down in a roadside ditch by heavy fire from 5 Japanese tanks supported by 10 machine guns and a platoon of riflemen. When 1 of his men fell wounded 40 yards (37 m) away, he unhesitatingly crossed the road under a hail of bullets and moved the man 75 yards (69 m) to safety. Although he had suffered a deep arm wound, he returned to his post. Finding the platoon leader seriously wounded, he assumed command and rallied his men. Once more he braved the enemy fire to go to the aid of a litter party removing another wounded soldier. A shell exploded in their midst, wounding him in the shoulder and killing 2 of the party. He picked up the remaining man, carried him to cover, and then moved out in front deliberately to draw the enemy fire while the American forces, thus protected, withdrew to safety. When the last man had gained the new position, he rejoined his command and there collapsed from loss of blood and exhaustion. M/Sgt. McGaha set an example of courage and leadership in keeping with the highest traditions of the service.
McGaha reenlisted in the Army after the war. It was the only life he really knew. He was an instructor at the Infantry School at Fort Benning in 1946 when a superior officer knocked on the door of his barracks.
Paperwork had been pending but now McGaha was about to become part of history. The brass informed the enlisted man that he was about to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The ceremony would be at the White House on March 27, 1946.
“President Truman wants to shake your hand,” the officer said.
A CITY OF HEROES
His mother, his grandmother and two of his aunts rode the train with him to Washington for the ceremony. A newspaper reporter who shadowed the honoree during his stay in the nation’s capital reminded the world that 32-year-old Charles McGaha was a bachelor.
“I like blondes,” he said, and his comment ended up on the front page.
Three years later, he married Jeanette Large. They remained in Georgia after he left the military for good. They never had children. They were too busy making money. He operated several businesses in Columbus and she ran a discount store in Seale, Ala.
He was not the only Medal of Honor recipient in town. Through the years McGaha got to know Jackson C. Pharris, Robert B. Nett, Donald R. Johnston and Freeman Horner. Health permitting, the others were usually had front row seats at military events. McGaha preferred to stay in the shadows. Though they lived their lives differently from him, those other old soldiers became his Blood Brothers. Not in the silly way kids slit their fingers and match drops. Theirs was shed on faraway battlefields where the blood of friend and enemy flows together.
Each cherished a medal that in monetary terms is worth very little. But its value to the soldiers who wear it cannot be measured. It always encourages respect and honor. But McGaha tried to treat that day in the Philippines as just one day out of his life. The 31,716 other days he lived were ordinary — but not that one.
“We’re recipients, not winners,” said Nett, who became a middle school teacher in Columbus. “We’re not like winners in a lottery. We didn’t choose up sides and win. We were awarded it. We didn’t do anything to win it.”
McGaha was forever humble, so much so that another recipient of the medal— Ed Schowalter of Auburn, Ala. — warned me that if he could McGaha would reach down and jerk my keyboard right off my desk.
Don Johnson, an Army veteran and an active member of the local American Legion post, knew McGaha for years. For a while, he worked for him, selling policies for his insurance agency. But Johnson never knew that his friend was a decorated hero. “The first time I knew about it he rode in a jeep in a 4th of July parade around 1972 with the Medal of Honor flag flying. I had known him 12 or 14 years then, and that was the first time I knew.”
I asked people why McGaha was so shy about his past and not one of them could answer me. For some, the aura of the medal might have been too great. The medal is part of our military history. It was created in 1862 and the requirements for receiving it were written by Abraham Lincoln. When a recipient displays it, people look at the sacred medal, not the man who’s wearing it. It may have been just too heavy for a country boy from Tennessee boy to bear.
The fellow who killed him totally ignored McGaha’s many decorations. His assailant was arrested in Alabama a few days after the stabbing. In his trial, it came out that the two men knew each other. They had been arguing over money. In that unobtrusive building, James Edward Irving did what enemy soldiers never could do. Mr. Mack survived a historic Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and months of bloody fighting in the jungles of the South Pacific. But he could not escape a knife on Benning Road.
His story still fascinates me and still evokes questions. On this Veteran’s Day, as we celebrate once again the men and women who have gone to war and come home, I think of Charles McGaha. He survived, but he may have come home with a duffel bag full of burdens he could never put down.