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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Daniel Edwards:
Hero or Hoax

by Clay Coppedge

Alvin C. York had nothing on Daniel Edwards, other than, perhaps, an abiding sense of honesty. Both men were awarded the Medal of Honor to recognize their gallant actions in World War I, but York's legacy has endured longer and stronger, partly due to the popularity of the 1941 Gary Cooper movie, Sergeant York.

But Edwards' stories are the more incredible, even the ones he didn't make up.

Edwards was born in the small rural community of Mooreville, Texas, about 25 miles south of Waco, in either 1888 or 1889. According to a 1932 biography by Lowell Thomas, This Side of Hell: Dan Edwards, Adventurer, Edwards ran away from home at age 14 to become a cowboy, then moved to New Orleans where he claimed dual duty as a bouncer and dance instructor at a local café. He enrolled in the army at Mooreville in April of 1917 and shipped overseas to fight in World War I as part of Company C, Third Machine Gun Battalion, First Division.

At the Battle of Cantigny on May 28, 1918, while carrying a machine gun into position, a German soldier bayoneted him in the wrist. The rest of his squad died at the battle, but Edwards managed to hold the position, unyielding even as the Germans used a flame thrower and an airplane against him. A German solider stabbed him in the stomach during one attack, but Edwards held fast until reinforcements arrived.

And that's not even the battle that earned him the Medal of Honor.

In the hospital recuperating from his wounds, Edwards heard that his unit was on its way to Soissons. He left the hospital without bothering to ask permission and hitchhiked to rejoin his old unit. The official citation for Edwards' Medal of Honor tells the story from there:

"Reporting for duty from hospital where he had been for several weeks under treatment for numerous and serious wounds and although suffering intense pain from a shattered arm, he crawled alone into an empty trench for the purpose of capturing or killing enemy soldiers known to be concealed therein. He killed four of the men and took the remaining four prisoner; while conducting them to the rear one of the enemy was killed by a high explosive enemy shell which also shattered one of Pfc. Edwards' legs, causing him to be immediately evacuated to the hospital. The bravery of Pfc. Edwards, now a tradition in the battalion because of his previous gallant acts, again caused the morale of his comrades to be raised to a fever pitch."

Because the military prefers not to award the Medal of Honor twice to the same person for service in the same war, Edwards received the Distinguished Service Cross, the military's second highest honor, for his actions at Cantigny. But Edwards had more incredible tales to tell.

In applying for his military benefits so he could attend Columbia University he claimed a bachelor's degree from Baylor University, but Columbia's records showed him as an Aggie from Texas A&M. Edwards claimed to have played football for both Baylor and A&M without enrolling at either school when he was a teenager. Later he claimed to have earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia, but he never graduated.

Edwards went to work for Warren G. Harding as a press aide and later as a veteran's affair consultant. Lowell Thomas' biography of Edwards made him a celebrity, but the book also raised more questions than it answered. Like how did he find time to go to college and play football while also serving as a Texas Ranger, joining Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution, getting captured by Mexican Nationals and sentenced to hard labor at a salt mine where, of course, he escaped and made his way to Vera Cruz to serve as an observer of the U.S. occupation there?

The wounds that Edwards suffered in the war left him with only part of his right arm, a left leg that he had to drag behind him, and a score of other enduring injuries but he retained a healthy imagination, claiming that between the two world wars he served as a soldier of fortune in the Venezuelan navy and the armies of France, Greece and China. Historians have been sorting through the stories ever since but haven't found much in the way of collaborating evidence.

In its entry on Edwards, the Texas State Cemetery website notes: "The events of Medal of Honor recipient Daniel Edwards' life, from birth to death, are unclear. He was prone to embellishment, a trait most likely enhanced by his celebrity, and records from the time he lived are often incomplete, making many of his claims impossible to disprove and many true events difficult to confirm."

Sister-in-law Thelma Thomas recalled Dan Edwards as "a smart likable fellow" to journalist Thomas E. Turner in 1986 but she also had doubts about some of her brother-in-law's tall tales.

"We all respected him for what he did in the first war," she said. "As for all those fantastic other stories he told, we didn't pay much attention to them. Some of them may have been true, but all of them couldn't have been. I can't say either way for sure, for instance, but I don't remember him ever attending Baylor or A&M."

Edwards spent his later years working as a fishing guide in Arkansas. He died at the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Little Rock, Ark. in 1967 at the age of 70. Time and subsequent research has done little to clear up the discrepancies in his many stories.

A 1990 article in Annals: Official Publication of the Medal of Honor Historical Society ran under the headline: "Daniel Edwards -Hero or Hoax?"

He was both.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" June 13, 2019 column

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