There are a lot of quirky traditions surrounding the town's World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade, like romancing the Arkansas edition of the Blarney Stone, but there's also a rather somber one that's actually my personal favorite.
Since 2011, Hot Springs has honored a two-time Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who is buried in Calvary Cemetery with a wreath-laying ceremony during the week of St. Patrick's Day.
John King, an Irish emigrant who joined the U.S. Navy in 1893 and served in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine insurrection, died in Hot Springs in 1938 while at the Army and Navy Hospital.
King was born in Ballinrobe, Ireland, on Feb. 7, 1862, and immigrated to the United States when he was 24, according to the Garland County Historical Society.
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy on July 20, 1893, serving as a coal passer on the USS Vermont. From 1893 to 1900, he served aboard the USS Vermont, USS New York and the USS Massachusetts.
In 1900, he was sent to the gunboat USS Vicksburg, which sailed from Boston by way of the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal to the Philippines, where the U.S. was fighting Filipino rebels. On May 29, 1901, while lying off Port Isabella in the Philippines, the Vicksburg was shaken by what every sailor dreaded -- a boiler explosion, according to an account from the historical society that was provided by Visit Hot Springs. King rushed to the dangerous scene and, in his words, "shut off the main stop of the boiler and smothered it up with blankets and towels." He was awarded the Medal of Honor, with his citation for "heroism in the line of his profession" signed by President Theodore Roosevelt.
While serving on the USS Salem, a light scout cruiser and one of the U.S. Navy's first turbine-engined warships, he earned his second Medal of Honor from President William Howard Taft, after badly scalding his arms while saving 12 in the fire-room who were in danger of being scalded to death.
King is one of only 19 people to receive the Medal of Honor twice.
After retiring from the military, King broke his right leg and was sent to Hot Springs to be treated at the former Army and Navy General Hospital in February 1937. He died there of pneumonia on May 20, 1938, according to the Garland County Historical Society.
"A two-time Medal of Honor winner, Irish-born, who was like how many who came over the years to Hot Springs Army and Navy Hospital for their injuries," Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, told me back in 2011. "A two-time Medal of Honor winner, and he's buried here, and he's never been honored here. And they erected a monument to him in his hometown in Ireland."
Members of a goodwill group of Arkansans who visited Ireland in 2017 in part to honor King renewed an effort to replace his two Medals of Honor, which were lost while in the possession of the U.S. Navy, which unfortunately proved fruitless.
The privately funded trip included employees of Visit Hot Springs, and they, along with members of the parade committee, worked behind the scenes on behalf of King's family, after learning during the trip to his hometown of Ballinrobe that the medals were missing.
King is a hometown hero in Ballinrobe, with a statue erected in his honor in the town square, said one member of the group, Monte Everhart, the reigning "World's Tallest Leprechaun" of the parade.
According to Kathleen Ann Reid (King), John King's great-niece, the destroyer USS John King was later named in his honor and his two Medals of Honor were given to the then-commander, Albert Monroe Sackett, during a visit to Ballinrobe, and were displayed on board the ship, which was decommissioned in 1990.
The medals had been kept in a biscuit box in King's home in Ballinrobe until they were handed to Sackett during a visit in 1962.
"We were told the medals were on display on the ship afterwards. However, no-one knows what happened to the medals after the ship was decommissioned (in) 1990." A family friend applied to the U.S. government for replicas, "but so far to no avail," Reid said in an email in 2017 to Mary Zunick, Visit Hot Springs' cultural affairs manager.
Everhart recalled finding out about the missing medals after the delegation had laid a wreath at the statue, with all the city fathers and the family members present, and were passing around his other medals, which were framed.
It's a shame that replacing the medals never came to pass, but it's a great gesture that he's remembered each year at this time for his bravery and sacrifice in service of our country.