Few people ever have the opportunity to see an actual Medal of Honor.
The nation's top military honor for combat gallantry has been awarded 3,468 times since its creation 150 years ago during the Civil War.
Those who receive the medal often decline to show it off, and 18 percent are awarded posthumously. The medals also get passed down through the generations, sometimes getting lost or misplaced.
But the public now has the chance to see five actual Medals of Honor awarded to local recipients, three of them posthumously, for acts of valor beyond the call of duty.
On Sunday, Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland unveiled its Medal of Honor Exhibit prior to induction of 14 new members to its Joseph A. Dugan Jr. Hall of Valor, which includes Medal of Honor recipients but also Pennsylvanians cited for heroism and bravery with the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Airmen's Medal or Soldier's Medal.
For several years Michael Kraus, Soldiers & Sailors curator, has sought Medals of Honor for the exhibit to honor local recipients and keep the stories alive about extraordinary courage during combat.
The five he accumulated were awarded to:
• Pvt. Charles Higby of the 1st Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry who captured the Confederate battle flag during the Appomattox Campaign.
• Sgt. John Kirkwood of Allegheny and Company M, 3rd Cavalry Regiment during the Great Sioux War of 1876-77, received the medal for valor after the Battle of Little Bighorn by tracking Sioux combatants and keeping them pinned down in a ravine, even though he had been shot in the side.
• During World War II, Staff Sgt. John W. Minick of Wall was in the 121st Infantry Regiment, 8th Infantry Division, in Germany, where he led a squad through a minefield, silenced two enemy machine gun emplacements and engaged a larger force of German soldiers before being killed in a second minefield.
• Marine Staff Sgt. William E. Shuck Jr. of Ridgeley, W.Va., was squad leader of Company G in Korea. He led his machine gun squad and a rifle squad in a series of attacks despite his wounds, and kept the enemy at bay until all the dead and wounded were evacuated. He then was killed by a sniper bullet.
• Marine Lance Cpl. William Prom of Mount Troy led a machine gun squad in the Vietnam War and on his own engaged the enemy while his squad reunited to continue their march. Later he came to the aid of a soldier critically wounded and then mounted an attack in full view of the enemy, leading to his death while inspiring his squad to mount a successful counterattack.
"The one condition every family wanted was for people to be able to see the medals, and we wanted to do something special that was historic and dignified," Mr. Kraus said.
Ann Smith, 51, of Rochester, Beaver County, was cleaning the attic at the New Brighton home of her father, Dick Deluca, 77, when she found an envelope containing the medal.
It inspired her brother, Jay Deluca, 55, also of New Brighton, to do some family research that includes trying to find a photograph of Mr. Higby, his great-great-great uncle who died in 1904.
John Nemec, 66, of Kent, Ohio, inherited Sgt. Minick's medal after his mother died. She was Sgt. Minick's sister. But he said he grew nervous with the medal hidden under his bed, prompting his daughter Jaymee Nemec, 39, of Columbus to track down Mr. Kraus at Soldier's & Sailors Hall.
"I'm very proud of its significance and proud of my uncle, but I'm proud of all who have served, especially the ones who have made the ultimate sacrifice," Mr. Nemec said.
Museum officials said the exhibit provides compelling information and honors some of the region's most gallant war heroes.
"This is a very sacred and honorable place to do this," Mr. Kraus said.
"We once had one medal on display and when people would see it they would stop and freeze. It is a significant piece of American history."
David Templeton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1578. First Published March 25, 2013 4:00 AM