As World War II’s grip tightened in Europe and the war’s global reach and threat increased, James “Hicksey” Banford volunteered for the army for the same reason many young men did back then: He knew America needed men to go and fight.
Banford ended up serving as one of the famed Merrill’s Marauders, the long-range penetration special ops jungle warfare unit that fought in the Southeast Asian theater (China-Burma-India Theater). The unit famously marched over 1,000 miles through dense jungle into Burma with no tanks or heavy artillery.
“My dad was a scout,” says his son, Jim Banford, Jr., who is a retired Local 13 (Philadelphia) BM-ST. “He was only five-foot-five and weighed about 130 pounds and carried a Thompson machine gun. The scout is the man out front. Anything that moved, he took care of with the machine gun.”
Nearly 80 years later, at age 99, James Banford, Sr., who is also a retired L-13 Boilermaker, has been honored for his service with a Congressional Gold Medal. Pennsylvania Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick presented Banford with the award and a flag flown over the United States Capitol Building in his honor.
“My dad felt really surprised and shocked—and he’s still in shock,” says the younger Banford. “He didn’t believe he was going to get the medal until he had it in his hands. He’s very thankful for everyone who helped him get it.”
That’s because his honor was delayed and almost didn’t happen.
A year earlier, Congressional Gold Medals were minted and presented to the handful of surviving Merrill’s Marauders. All of them except Banford. Due to a fire in 1973 in the St. Louis facility that stored military records, Banford’s service records were destroyed, and he was accidentally left out. Banford, Jr. read about the medal presentation in a newspaper
“My dad felt hurt and forgotten,” Banford, Jr. says. “He thought they assumed he was dead because of his age.”
So Banford, Jr. set out to prove his father’s service and ensure he was properly recognized among his Merrill’s Marauders brothers. A friend connected him to a retired Bucks County, Pennsylvania, veteran’s affairs director, and Banford, Jr. found a copy of his father’s honorary discharge. Fitzpatrick’s office helped secure the medal, which was presented in late July in an informal ceremony. A bigger ceremony is planned for later at Bucks County Community College.
“Once the medal came in, I told Congressman Fitzpatrick my dad was going to be 99 and there was no sense in keeping it. We could have a bigger ceremony later down the road,” Banford, Jr. says. “My dad is one of the nicest guys you would ever want to meet. He’s a hard worker, dependable, happy and likes to have a cold beer. But don’t get him mad.”
He relates a story about his father encountering a child who needed medical aid in Burma. Banford, Sr. had been out on patrol and came across a bamboo hut. Inside was woman with a child laying on a bamboo cot.
“My dad saw that the child’s foot was full of puss. So, he hand-signaled the woman that he was going to take the child to get his foot worked on at the aid station and then bring him back. He carried the boy several miles to the aid station with the help of the other Marauders where the child was tended to. They then took him back home. When they got to the hut, the Burmese people were so happy they gave the Marauders so many bananas they didn’t know what to do with them.”
Banford, Sr. was later hit by an artillery shell, injured and discharged.
When he returned home, his son says he went dancing in the dance halls of Philadelphia.
“He met my mother walking down the street in Philadelphia, married her and had six children,” Banford, Jr. says, noting that his parents were married 76 years before his mother’s recent death. “He knows she would be very proud of him.”
In addition to the Congressional Gold Medal, Banford, Sr. was previously honored with the Asiatic-Pacific Theater medal, a Combat Infantry badge, the World War II Victory medal, two Bronze Stars, a Distinguished Unit badge, a Purple Heart and an American Campaign medal.
“Like all veterans, he says it’s just nice to hear the words ‘thank you’ from fellow Americans,” Banford, Jr. says.