The Medal of Honor is the United States’ highest and most prestigious personal military decoration awarded to service members who distinguish themselves with acts of valor.
Sergeant Joseph Bernard Adkison was born on Jan. 4, 1892 in Atoka, the son of Joseph Adkison and Adeline Delashmit, and he was the first man in Tennessee to earn the Medal of Honor during World War I.
He served in the United States Army during World War I as a sergeant in Company C, 119th Infantry Regiment, 60th Infantry Brigade, 30th Division, which was attached to the Second Army of the British Expeditionary Force.
On Sept. 29, 1918, Sgt. Adkison’s platoon, in joint cooperation with Australian and British forces, attacked the heavily fortified town of Bellicourt, France, with tank, aircraft and artillery support.
The area was known as the Hindenburg Line and ran several miles near the border of France and Belgium. Fortified with barbed wire and concrete machine gun emplacements, the line was estimated to be approximately 6,000 yards deep and highly impermeable. It was the last organized system of trenches built by the Germans to stop the Allied advance. The trenches were lined with mining timbers to a depth of 30 feet with small rooms scattered through out the line capable of holding four to six men.
This, along with the tunnels built into the trenches and connecting with nearby towns, provided a complete and safe subterranean means of travel, communication and re-enforcement for the German Army.
Considered to be the gem of the German defense, the line played a heavy role in boosting the morale of the German Army.
Sgt. Adkison and his fellow Allied soldiers, gathered in place at 4:30 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 29, 1918 and quietly waited the moment of zero hour. At exactly 5:50 a.m., they began the most historic barrage ever laid down on the Western Front.
Over a 56-hour period, the Allies participated in a joint attack along a 10,000-yard-long front of the line, using in excess of 1,600 guns and almost a million artillery shells, in a battle known as the Battle of St. Quentin Canal.
With visibility of less than five yards due to fog and smoke, Sgt. Adkison’s platoon was soon pinned down by machine gun fire.
Acting alone and without regard for the hostile machine gun fire aimed at him, Adkison rushed 50 yards across open ground. Reaching the German emplacement, he kicked the gun off the parapet and captured the three gunners at bayonet point. His gallantry and quick action enabled the platoon to advance and was a major contribution toward the Allied breakthrough in the Hindenburg line.
After four days of battle and heavy losses on both sides, the Germans were forced to retreat.
The 119th alone, suffered the loss of 261 men, 9,682 wounded, 433 men taken as prisoners and 12 missing in action.
The Allies, meanwhile, pressed their advantage on the Western Front throughout the following month, which turned out to be the final month of World War I.
Adkison was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1919 for his bravery and was cited with the following citation, “When murderous machine gun fire at a range of 50 yards had made it impossible for his platoon to advance, and had caused the platoon to take cover, Sergeant Adkison alone, with the greatest intrepidity, rushed across the 50 yards of open ground directly in the face of the hostile machine gun kicked the gun from the parapet into the enemy trench, and at the point of the bayonet captured the three men manning the gun. The gallantry and quick decision of this soldier enabled the platoon to resume its advance.”
Later that same day, Sergeant Adkison was severely wounded by an exploding artillery shell, receiving wounds to his left arm, left hip and left leg.
Invited to Washington, D.C. in March 1919 to receive the Medal of Honor from President Woodrow Wilson, Adkison declined due to his wounds not being fully healed. When he was feeling better, an Army major was sent from Washington, D.C. to make the Medal of Honor presentation for the President.
Sergeant Adkison was awarded his Medal of Honor surrounded by family and friends at Atoka Presbyterian Church.
Sgt. Joseph B. Adkison, affectionately called Bernard, by his family and friends, died at the age of 73 on May 23, 1964 in the city of his birth and is buried in Salem Associate Reformed Presbyterian Cemetery.
In 2015, the Atoka chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart was named for Adkison. A park in the center of downtown is also named for him.
He was one of six Medal of Honor awardees from the State of Tennessee during World War I. The others were James E. Karnes, Milo Lemert, Edward R. Talley, Calvin J. Ward and Alvin C. York.
The Medal of Honor was created in 1861. It is awarded only to US military personnel, by the president of the United States in the name of Congress, for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.
The first ones were awarded on March 25, 1863 to six members of “Andrews Raiders” for their volunteering and participation during an American Civil War raid in April 1862.
Congress designated March 25 of each year as National Medal of Honor Day in 1990.