In World War II, Marine Corps Maj. Henry Alexius Courtney Jr. displayed incredible bravery and leadership during the Battle of Okinawa. Despite not surviving the battle, Courtney’s actions prevented a Japanese counterattack and saved the lives of many American soldiers. As a result, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Henry Courtney Jr. was born on January 6, 1916, in Duluth, Minnesota. He came from a family of lawyers and had dreams of following in his father’s footsteps. After finishing high school, Courtney attended the University of Minnesota, where he played football and earned his bachelor’s degree. Later, he pursued a law degree at Loyola University in Chicago.
While studying in Chicago, Courtney joined the Marine Corps Reserve due to his desire to serve his country. He became a second lieutenant in February 1940. Although he had hoped to pass the bar exam before being called to active duty, he was assigned to lead the Duluth unit of the Marine Corps Reserve, which was mobilized and sent for training in San Diego as the war approached.
Courtney served in Iceland for about 10 months, where he learned about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He then led a company of the 1st Marine Division in the Solomon Islands during the Guadalcanal campaign, which was the first major U.S. offensive in World War II.
While in the Solomons, Courtney contracted malaria and returned to the U.S. for recovery. Despite the opportunity to remain stateside and train others, he requested to return to combat duty and lead younger Marines. His request was granted, and he also took a special bar exam while on leave, which he passed with distinction.
In November 1944, Courtney joined the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Marines of the 6th Marine Division and participated in the Battle of Okinawa. It was during this battle that he made the ultimate sacrifice.
On May 14, 1945, Courtney led his men in a courageous assault on Sugar Loaf Hill, a strategically important position held by the Japanese. Despite facing intense enemy fire, he inspired his men to follow him without hesitation. They successfully overcame the enemy’s defenses and reached the top of the hill. Courtney’s instincts proved correct when they discovered a large gathering of Japanese soldiers preparing for a counterattack. He fearlessly charged the enemy, diverting their attention and forcing them to seek shelter in caves.
Courageously, Courtney ordered his men to dig in and rallied them while providing aid to the wounded. Tragically, he was killed by a mortar blast while moving among his troops. His actions disrupted the Japanese assault, allowed his men to secure the hill, and prevented the enemy from overrunning Allied lines.
For his exceptional bravery and leadership, Maj. Henry Courtney Jr. was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. In July 1945, Maj. Gen. Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr., who had recommended Courtney for the medal, expressed his condolences to Courtney’s parents and praised their son’s heroism and the profound impact he had on his fellow Marines.
Courtney’s Medal of Honor was presented to his parents in 1947. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Duluth, his hometown.
To honor his memory, the USS Courtney II, a destroyer escort, was commissioned, and Camp Courtney, a Marine Base in Okinawa, was named after him. Courtney’s legacy lives on through these tributes and the gratitude of his family and the military community.