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State veterans hall gets first inductees
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Seven Medal of Honor recipients were among 18 inaugural inductees at the first Georgia Military Veterans’ Hall of Fame ceremony on Nov. 22 in Columbus.
State Sen. Hunter Hill of Smyrna presented each inductee with an engraved medal, coin and other awards at the ceremony. Awards for deceased inductees were accepted by family members or friends.
“Georgia is one of the states with the highest numbers of veterans living within its borders,” said GMVHOF Director retired Army Col. Paul Longgrear, who along with GMVHOF Secretary retired Army Col. Rick White, was the driving force behind creation of the nonprofit GMVHOF. “This program enables us to reach across all branches of military service to honor Georgia’s veterans.”
White said the “rarest Georgia inductee” was George W. Leland from Savannah. Leland was a U.S. Navy gunner’s mate who was awarded the MOH for attempting to free the U.S.S. Lehigh, an ironclad that had run aground during the Civil War battle of Charleston Harbor.
Two other inductees, retired Air Force Col. Joe Madison Jackson and Marine Maj. Stephen Wesley Pless, both Newnan natives, were awarded the MOH for “selflessness, bravery and leadership” during aerial combat in Vietnam. A bust of Pless was donated to the GMVHOF by Winston Skinner of Newnan.
The other four MOH recipients inducted into the GMVHOF are Gen. Raymond Gilbert Davis, a Korean War Marine from Fitzgerald; Sgt. Rodney Davis, a Vietnam Marine from Macon, who was killed when he leaped on an exploding grenade to save his men; Maj. Henry Elrod, a Marine pilot from Ashburn, who was killed while leading a ground force on Wake Island in World War II after destroying an enemy warship and two planes before being shot down; and Hilliard Wilbanks, an Air Force captain from Cornelia who was killed in Vietnam while flying an unarmed airplane and firing his handgun to divert the enemy from an outnumbered Army Ranger unit.
Sgt. 1st Class Johnny Calhoun of Newnan was part of a secret Army Special Forces unit fighting behind enemy lines in Laos during the Vietnam War. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for sacrificing his life to save his team.
Two inductees who also are members of the Army Ranger Hall of Fame are decorated combat veterans of two wars. Retired Army Col. Ralph Puckett fought in Korea and Vietnam and received two Distinguished Service Crosses for his actions during those wars. Retired Army Master Sgt. Vincent Melillo, 95, is an original World War II Merrill’s Marauder. Each Marauder received the Presidential Unit Citation. He later fought with the 5th Regimental Combat Team in Korea.  
World War II sailor Wendall Leon Jones of Tifton was 16 years old when he enlisted in the Navy and 17 when he landed on the beach at Normandy on D-Day. He was wounded numerous times during the battle.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. David L. Grange and Army Col. Ben Purcell received multiple Silver Stars for heroism during the Vietnam War. Purcell, a Clarksville native, was a North Vietnamese prisoner of war for more than five years.
Retired Sgt. Maj. of the Army William Connelly of Monticello is the sixth of 14 soldiers to be named the highest-ranking enlisted person in the Army. He was inducted for his achievements and service to the nation during more than 30 years of active duty.
Army Capt. Tommy Clack from Decatur was medically retired after sacrificing two legs and an arm in Vietnam in 1969. He has spent more than 40 years aiding veterans and their families throughout the country.
The Honorable Pete Wheeler from Albany is an Army World War II veteran and retired brigadier general and has served more than 60 years as the director of the Georgia Department of Veterans Service.
The Honorable John Phillip Yates, a World War II Army captain from Griffin, flew more than 200 missions in Europe and was awarded six Air Medals and four Battle Stars. He has served 22 years in the state House of Representatives and is chairman of the Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Allan B. Imes of Griffin served three tours in Ranger and Special Forces units in Vietnam. For 17 years, he was in charge of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at Griffin High School.
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