Belfast Telegraph

Plaque to honour Ulster-born US Medal of Honor war hero

Soldiers in the First World War
Soldiers in the First World War
Kilkeel-born Joseph Thompson
Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

A Co Down war hero who was awarded America's highest military decoration is to be recognised in his home town.

Joseph "Colonel Joe" Henry Thompson is the only Ulster recipient of the United States Medal of Honor for bravery and courage during the First World War.

His citation recalled how he encouraged his battalion on the front line amid the heavy fire of machine-guns and artillery.

Later, Thompson became an award-winning American college football coach, attorney and state senator in Pennsylvania.

On Thursday his life will be marked by the unveiling of a blue plaque in the fishing port of Kilkeel.

The plaque, sited at the Kilmorey Arms Hotel, has been organised by the Ulster History Circle. It will be unveiled by the American consul-general in Belfast Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau.

Thompson was born in the townland of Dunnaval, Kilkeel, on September 26, 1871.

Little is known about his early years, until he emigrated in 1889 to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He studied at Duff's College, Geneva College and at Pitt Law School, graduating as an attorney.

Thompson excelled at sport, and also coached at Geneva, Carnegie Tech, and Pittsburgh High School. He was key in Pittsburgh winning their first National Championship - the highest level of college football in the United States.

He worked as an attorney in his home town of Beaver Falls, and also served as a member of the Pennsylvania Senate from 1913 to 1916.

At the time war was raging in Europe, and when America joined the fighting in 1917 he and his battalion were transported to France.

Thompson became famous for his bravery in the field of battle at Apremont, Ardennes.

His military service record shows that he entered the Pennsylvania National Guard 14th Infantry Regiment in February 1905, and was discharged from active service duty in December 1919 as Col Joseph H Thompson, commanding the 110th Regiment, 28th Infantry Division.

He was wounded four times - on September 29 and 30, 1918 and twice on October 1, 1918.

Each time Thompson remained on duty and encouraged his battalion on the front line against the heavy machine-guns and artillery.

His bravery saw him rushing forward on several occasions under anti-tank gun fire.

For his bravery and courage, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which was later replaced by the Medal of Honor by US President Herbert Hoover. He was also awarded the Croix de Guerre of France, which honours those who performed heroic deeds in combat.

When he returned from France he continued to work as an attorney, and visited Kilkeel many times, lauded as a hero.

He married Californian woman Violet Edith Smeight and they had one son, Joseph Smeight Thompson.

He died aged 57 and was buried with full military honours in Beaver Falls Cemetery, where today the Stars and Stripes flies over his grave.

Ulster History Circle chairman Chris Spurr said: "Joseph H Thompson was an award-winning college football coach, attorney and state senator in Pennsylvania, who then distinguished himself on military service in France in 1918.

"His valour there led to him receiving the United States Medal of Honor, the nation's highest personal military decoration, and he is the only Ulster-born soldier to win this medal in World War One.

"The Ulster History Circle is pleased to commemorate this renowned soldier with a blue plaque in Kilkeel, the place of his birth, and we are honoured that the American consul-general, Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau, will unveil the plaque."

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