From Gettysburg to Iwo Jima to Iraq—Wisconsin Soldiers Played a Role in Keeping America Free

Clockwise from top left: Pharmacist's Mate Second Class John Bradley, Gen. Robert McCoy, Staff Sgt. Russell Klika, Gen. Arthur MacArthur, Jr.

By Christina Lorey
July 3, 2022

For the first Fourth of July in 20 years, the US isn’t involved in any active wars. But many veterans continue to fight their own battles—and you can help.

While most of us will celebrate Independence Day weekend with food and fun, let’s not forget some of the people with Wisconsin ties who made these freedoms possible.

Did you know that 63 Wisconsinites have received the Medal of Honor, the highest award for bravery in the US Armed Forces? 

Most (22) were awarded to soldiers who fought in the Civil War— especially the “Iron Brigade,” (the 7th Infantry along with members of the 6th and 2nd) for its sacrifices at Gettysburg that helped preserve the Union on July 1-3, 1863.  Medal of Honor recipients spanned US history through the Vietnam War. A special congressional medal was also awarded to Milwaukee’s own Gen. Billy Mitchell, an aviation pioneer and airport namesake.

You’ve probably heard of Douglas MacArthur. But did you know his dad was a Union soldier, famous for shouting “On Wisconsin” on the battlefield?

General Arthur MacArthur, Jr. is the father of five-star General Douglas MacArthur. The pair became the first father and son to both receive the Medal of Honor. (And it has only happened once since, with former President Theodore Roosevelt and his son, Theodore, Jr., who commanded troops at Utah Beach on D-Day.)

The elder MacArthur started his military career in Milwaukee, but his most famous moment happened during the Civil War Battle of Missionary Ridge in Tennessee, when the 18-year-old planted the regimental flag on top of a hill and shouted “On Wisconsin.” He was awarded the Medal of Honor for inspiring his fellow Union soldiers with that action and went on to serve in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars.

Fort McCoy most recently made national news in 2021, offering shelter to more than 12,600 Afghan refugees, but did you know its founder represented Wisconsin in several wars?

General Robert Bruce McCoy was a National Guardsman during both the Spanish American War and World War I. After his first deployment, McCoy bought some land in Wisconsin to start training other soldiers. When he died in 1926, the military named the base after him.

Since then, Fort McCoy has been in constant use, and currently trains more than 100,000 members of the military every year. The 181st Infantry Brigade, the division responsible for training National Guard troops involved with the Global War on Terror, is the largest unit stationed at the fort.

The flag-raising at Iwo Jima is one of the most iconic images of World War II, but did you know the iconic photo isn’t the first flag—and one of those first flag raisers is from Wisconsin? 

Navy corpsman and field medic John ‘Doc’ Bradley jumped in to help several Marines hoist the first American flag above the black sand and volcanic ash on the tiny island of Mt. Suribachi in February 1945. 

Bradley was the last surviving flag-raiser when he passed away in 1994. His son John wrote the best-selling book “Flags of Our Fathers” in 2000.

He was born in the Antigo area, grew up in Appleton, and returned to Antigo after the war, where he raised his eight children and started a business.

After Bradley’s passing, confusion about the men in Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph was finally resolved. Bradley had actually been photographed by Lou Lowery while raising the first flag, but commanders wanted a larger flag planted later that day. Bradley was misidentified as being part of the second flag-raising. 

The initial flag raising on Iwo Jima photographed by Staff Sergeant Louis R Lowery USMC staff photographer for Leatherneck magazine

Related: Last surviving World War II Medal of Honor recipient, Iwo Jima hero, dies at 98

Bradley was among 110,000 Americans who fought for control of the small but vital island and he was one of some 20,000 who were wounded in a campaign that resulted in 6,800 American deaths. Bradley was awarded the Navy Cross and the Purple Heart.

War-time photographs are the closest many of us will ever get to combat, but did you know the man responsible for some of this generation’s famous photos is from Wisconsin?

Appleton’s Russell Klika dropped out of high school in the late 1970s and joined the Marines when he was 17. On a whim, he bought a 35mm camera and taught himself how to use it. 

After working as a civilian newspaper photographer and documenting the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Klika rejoined the military and, camera in hand,  traveled to Iraq as a non-commissioned officer. His photographs have been featured in Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times. In 2007, Klika was named the Military Photographer of the Year.

Did you know this is the first Independence Day in 20 years that soldiers from Wisconsin—or any other state—are not actively fighting in a war zone? 

The withdrawal of most American soldiers from Afghanistan ended the country’s longest war. But the post-traumatic stress and pain of losing friends or family members in the past is still very real within the military community. 

Here are several organizations the Wisconsin Veterans Museum supports that benefit US troops, veterans, and their families:

Wisconsin Veterans Foundation

Wounded Warrior Project

Soldiers Angels

Veteran Tickets Foundation

Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America


  • Christina Lorey

    Christina is an Edward R. Murrow-winning journalist and former producer, reporter, and anchor for TV stations in Madison and Moline. When she’s not writing or asking questions, you can find her volunteering with Girls on the Run, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and various mental health organizations.

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