"Tell it to the Marines" was a popular recruiting slogan during World War I. Throughout the long, distinguished history of the US Marine Corps, courage, determination, and love of country have always been at the heart of their training. One Arkansas native, John H. Pruitt, one of the most decorated Marines of World War I, showed this to the world when he became one of the few men to ever earn two Congressional Medals of Honor.
John Henry Pruitt II was born in Pruitt Hollow, near Fayetteville, on October 4, 1896. He was born into a modest farm family, but his time in Arkansas would be short. While still young, Pruitt’s father moved the family to the thriving mining town of Jerome in the Arizona Territory, where he worked for a few years as a blacksmith. After attending elementary school in Jerome, the family moved to Phoenix.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Pruitt quickly enlisted in the Marines. He was soon sent to the front lines as part of the Second Division, Sixth Marine Regiment.
The day was October 3, 1918. The war was just five weeks from ending, but the horrors of war continued without mercy. The three-week battle of Blanc Mont, France, not far from the Belgian border had just begun.
Corporal Pruitt and his unit were pinned down by heavy German fire. The Germans were worn out by years of war but refusing to give in. Pruitt quickly surveyed the situation. He spied the two machine gun nests firing at them. He then sprang into action. Charging ahead, he quickly captured both machine gun emplacements. Two German soldiers were killed, but he singlehandedly forced forty other troops to surrender and marched them back to the American lines.
Pruitt had strengthened the American position and, his superiors noted, also saved lives with his incredible feat. But the day was not done. He remained on duty as a sniper lookout for his unit. Suddenly, a round of German mortars erupted, striking Pruitt and critically injuring him. Doctors could do nothing for his wounds, and he died the next morning. It was Pruitt’s twenty-second birthday.
Afterward, the military bestowed many honors on him. The Congressional Medal of Honor was established in 1861 as the highest military award to honor those soldiers who acted with gallantry above and beyond the call of duty. At the time of World War I, the army and the navy had their own versions of the medal, with an air force version created in 1965. With Pruitt’s actions, there was no doubt of his worthiness. The navy and the army both awarded him the Medal of Honor. He became one of only 19 Americans ever to receive two Medals of Honor.
He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Two of America’s allies, France and Italy, also honored Pruitt with their highest military awards.
In 1920, the US Navy commissioned the cruiser USS Pruitt in his memory. This ship would serve ably through World War II until it was decommissioned in 1945. Pruitt Hall, at the Marine Corps base in Quanitco,Virginia, was named for him as an example of the gallantry and patriotism the Marines hold in highest respect.
In the years after World War I, Pruitt’s medals became part of a museum display at the Arizona State Capitol. The family, however, had them transferred to the Marine Corps museum. His nephew, John Pruitt III, reported that he had offers of up to $250,000 for the medals. He refused each offer, saying, "Those medals belong to the Marines."