James Strom Thurmond was born on December 5, 1902, in Edgefield, South Carolina. After the outbreak of World War II, then a judge, Thurmond resigned from the bench to serve in the U.S. Army. Having been in the Reserves since 1924, he was commissioned a Lieutenant with the First Army’s Eighty-second Airborne Division. On D-Day in 1944, his troop glider crash-landed behind enemy lines in France. Sustaining minor injuries, he and the other men fought for two days in isolation before they succeeded in linking up with American Forces advancing from their beachhead in Normandy. For his military service, he received 18 decorations, medals and awards, including the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, Bronze Star with Valor device, Purple Heart, World War II Victory Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Belgium’s Order of the Crown and France’s Croix de Guerre. During 1954-55 he was president of the Reserve Officers Association. He later retired from the U.S. Army Reserves with the rank of Major General.
This officially engraved Legion of Merit was most likely the medal that was surrounded by controversy. Thurmond wasn’t awarded this medal until 1972, which was well past the statute of limitations for when the medal could be awarded for the corresponding meritorious service. It is thought that the Nixon administration was instrumental in Thurmond ultimately being awarded the medal.
After World War II, Thurmond had a prolific political career. He served as Governor of South Carolina from 1947 to 1951. In 1948, he had an unsuccessful bid to become President, running as the States’ Rights Democratic candidate. In 1954, he began serving as a U.S. Senator from South Carolina. He would successfully serve eight terms, ending his career in January 3, 2003, as the only Senator to ever serve at the age of 100. Thurmond died in South Carolina on June 26, 2003.