Lieutenant Commander Rufus Geddie Herring loved his community and fought valiantly for his country, holding the distinction of being Sampson County’s only recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. A community group is hoping Herring will soon receive another tribute.
As his home county grows, friends, family and others are seeking to honor the life, career and military accomplishments of a “true American hero” so that a name synonymous with Sampson pride will live through the years.
On Monday, the Sampson Board of Commissioners unanimously adopted a resolution supporting naming a portion of N.C. 24 — an approximate 3.5-mile stretch bypassing north of Roseboro — as “LCDR Rufus Geddie Herring Highway.” On behalf of others, Greg Butler requested the board adopt the resolution to honor Herring, a war hero, active citizen and successful businessman born and raised in Roseboro.
Herring served in World War II as a naval officer in the Pacific Theater, and was presented the Congressional Medal of Honor by Naval Secretary James Forrestal, standing in for President Harry S. Truman, for selfless heroics during the Battle of Iwo Jima on Feb. 17, 1945. Herring was also a recipient of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine and was posthumously inducted into the Sampson County Hall of Fame in 1999.
“He is a true American hero,” an emotional Butler said. “He was in Iwo Jima and basically should’ve died. They were under tremendous fire. He was able to salvage his ship and get them out of harm’s way even though he was on the verge of dying.”
The Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action that a member of the Armed Services of the United States can receive — and it is often awarded to their families. Herring was able to live to receive his, Butler noted.
Not only did Herring live, he thrived, to the benefit of his family, friends and community.
“I could be here even if it wasn’t for (his military accomplishments),” Butler attested. “The life he led came back here after the war. He was mayor of Roseboro, the chairman of the county Board of Education, he was involved in his community, he was involved in his church and he raised three fine children. He was a genuine hero.”
Herring served as mayor of Roseboro from 1947 to 1950 and on the Sampson Board of Education from 1953 to 1957, serving as chairman the last two years. During that time, he made the recommendation to name the longtime elementary school in Roseboro after Charles E. Perry. Max Herring recalled his father signing local teachers’ checks for years.
“He was very proud to be from Roseboro and from Sampson County,” said Max, who recalled his father’s fondness for sniffing in “that Sampson County air” each time he’d come back over the county line. Today, Max now does the same, a nod to his dad.
“We would be very honored (for this tribute),” said Max. “He chose to be buried in Roseboro rather than Arlington. He’s buried out there within a stone’s throw of where this bypass is going by.”
Butler collected character recommendation letters and completed application documents required for the designation. The family additionally pledged payment of the administrative fee of $2,000. DOT, while already offering its support, has regulations that require a public comment session and unanimous approval of a resolution by the local governing board.
Longtime Veterans Service Officer Ann Knowles and former Board of Commissioners chairman and Sampson stalwart Jefferson Strickland both spoke to Herring’s legacy.
“He was a true friend of the veterans,” said Knowles. “He would have been 100 percent service connected for his wounds, no doubt. He never applied for disability. He was in his 70s when he got his benefits, because he would never accept them. This man was a true hero and I would be so honored as your Veterans Service officer to have a portion of N.C. 24 to be named in his honor. I would like all of 24 in Sampson County to be named after him.”
Strickland recalled Herring’s humor, even as he battled illness in his later years. Herring would talk about cheating death in Iwo Jimi and his goal to make the most of the borrowed time he was given.
His official Medal of Honor citation details “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty” as the commanding officer of LCI (G) 449 — Landing Craft Infantry (Gunboat) — during the preinvasion attack on Iwo Jima on Feb. 17, 1945.
Herring directed barrages of 40-mm and 20-mm gunfire against enemy shores until struck down by counterfire, “which blasted the 449’s heavy guns and whipped her decks into sheets of flame.” Bleeding profusely, Herring regained consciousness before being wounded again when Japanese mortar fire crashed the conning station, instantly killing or wounding most of the officers.
When he again regained consciousness, Herring was able to establish communication with the engine room and carried on until relief could be obtained. When no longer able to stand, according to the medal citation, he propped himself against empty shell cases and rallied his men to the aid of the wounded, while “he maintained position in the firing line with his 20-mm guns in action in the face of sustained enemy fire and conned his crippled ship to safety.”
“His unwavering fortitude, aggressive perseverance and indomitable spirit against terrific odds reflect the highest credit upon Lieutenant Herring and uphold the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service,” the citation concluded.
After a long fruitful life, Herring died on Jan. 31, 1996.
“He lived every day to the fullest,” said Strickland. “He was a leader and a mentor, a church leader, a community leader, a civic leader, but most of all, just a wonderful friend to all who would accept his friendship.”
Knowles recalled one particular conversation she had with Herring, when the topic of the Medal of Honor was broached. Ever humble, Herring said it wasn’t about what he did. It was about recognizing his fallen comrades.
“It was put around my neck, but it was for all of those who didn’t get to come home,” he told Knowles.
“And he lived that life,” she attested.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.