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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published November 08 2009

North Dakotan was first to receive Medal of Honor during World War I

The first Medal of Honor recipient for heroism during World War I was from North Dakota.

On July 23, 1917, Lt. Willis W. Bradley undoubtedly saved his ship and crew when ammunition cases exploded as they were being loaded into the ship’s artillery enclosure.

Bradley was blown back and temporarily knocked unconscious, but he crawled back into the burning enclosure after regaining consciousness. He extinguished the burning materials located next to “a considerable amount of powder,” preventing further explosions and likely saving the ship.

While still in the U.S. Navy, Bradley served as governor of Guam. After retiring, he was elected to the U.S. Congress. On March 26, 1964, the 414-foot destroyer escort USS Bradley was launched, which was named in honor of him.

Bradley was born June 28, 1884, in Ransomville, N.Y., to Dr. Willis and Sarah Anne (Johnson) Bradley. When Willis Jr. was only a few days old, the family took a train to Milnor in Dakota Territory about the time Milnor was incorporated as a village on July 8.

When the Territorial Legislature created Sargent County in 1883, Milnor was chosen as the county seat. Dr. Bradley was Milnor’s first physician and was most likely the first doctor in Sargent County. He was also the observer and recorder for the U.S. Weather Bureau in the area.

In 1886, the seat of county government was moved from Milnor to Forman. In 1891, Dr. Bradley moved his medical practice to Forman, which was more centrally located in the county.

Because there was no high school in Forman, Willis Jr. was sent to Hamline University preparatory school. Bradley also took courses at the Archibald Business College and the Curtis Commerce College in Minneapolis. During the summers, he was deputy registrant of deeds for Sargent County.

On May 6, 1903, Bradley was appointed to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. While at the academy, Bradley, who graduated on Sept. 12, 1906, was commissioned as ensign and assigned to sea duty.

After spending more than six years aboard various naval vessels, he received his lieutenant commission on July 1, 1913, and was placed in command of the USS Biddle.

In fall 1913, Bradley enrolled at George Washington University and graduated in 1915 with a master’s degree in chemistry and explosives. He then returned to sea duty for another two years.

When the U.S. entered World War I, Bradley was assigned to the USS Pittsburgh as a gunnery officer. It was while aboard the Pittsburgh that the explosion occurred.

One month after the incident, he was promoted to lieutenant commander and a year later to commander, both temporary wartime commissions. In January 1918, Bradley became the head of the explosives section of the Bureau of Ordnance, a position he held until the end of the war.

For the next 10 years, Bradley alternated between sea and shore duty. In June 1929, he was named governor of Guam. Guam, the largest of the Mariana Islands, was ceded to the U.S. from Spain in 1898 after the Spanish American War. For his work with the Catholic Church on the island, Bradley was awarded the Silver Medal by Pope Pius XI.

Bradley then assumed command of the USS Bridge in July 1931. Until the early part of World War II, he served in the Aleutians, Caribbean and Pacific, including Pearl Harbor, as commander of various installations.

During World War II, Bradley was commander of the Naval Inspection and Survey Board, with headquarters in Long Beach, Calif. He retired Aug. 1, 1946.

In 1946, Bradley decided to run for U.S. Congress. He was considered a progressive Republican but later confessed to be more of a civil libertarian. His Democratic opponent was incumbent Clyde Doyle. Bradley was elected in District 18, receiving 55.7 percent of the votes. Joining him as a freshman Republican congressman from District 12 was Richard Nixon.

Bradley ran for re-election in 1948, again against Doyle. Doyle won. In 1952, Bradley ran for a California state assembly seat and won. He was an active legislator, but suffered heart attacks in March and May 1953. While chairing a meeting of the oil and mining committee on Aug. 27, 1954, Bradley suffered a third heart attack and died in the hospital.


Information about “Did You Know That” and all three volumes of the book are available at eriksmoenenterprises.com. The column and books are written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen. Reach the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net. The Eriksmoens will be available for a book signing at the Grand Forks Alerus Center today.