When Staff Sgt. Jesse Ray Drowley arrived alone at an American camp on the Solomon Islands with a gaping wound in his chest, a missing eye and a shredded uniform, a junior officer threatened to court-martial him for abandoning his defense post. Instead, Drowley was put on the path to history.
On Jan. 30, 1944, Drowley was a rifle squad leader with B Company, 132nd Infantry Regiment, Americal Division, when he displayed the bravery that would earn him the Medal of Honor.
The Americal Division arrived on Bougainville on Dec. 25, 1943, as part of the Solomon Islands and New Guinea campaigns. The division was unique in World War II as it carried a name and not a numerical designation. It got its name from “American, New Caledonia,” the South Pacific island on which the unit was provisionally formed for defense in May 1942. Though officially known later as the 23rd Infantry Division, the Americal name remained.
A month after the unit’s arrival, Drowley was assigned a defensive role with his company as a neighboring company launched an attack against Japanese defensive positions. The staff sergeant witnessed three wounded Soldiers from the neighboring unit collapse. Intense enemy fire prevented their rescue. That’s when Drowley made a fateful decision.
According to his Medal of Honor citation, Drowley “fearlessly rushed forward to carry the wounded” one-by-one to cover. After moving two of the men to safety amid a hail of gunfire, Drowley discovered an enemy pillbox that American assault tanks had missed. The enemy fighters within were “inflicting heavy casualties upon the attacking force and … a chief obstacle to the success of the advance.”
The dire situation didn’t deter him. Drowley directed another Soldier to complete the rescue of the third wounded Soldier. Meanwhile, he darted out across open terrain to one of the American tanks. Drowley climbed the turret and signaled the crew. He exchanged his weapon for a submachine gun and rode the deck of the tank while firing toward the pillbox with tracer fire. As the tank ambled closer to the enemy position, Drowley received a severe wound to the chest. He refused to leave his position for medical treatment, instead continuing to direct the tank’s driver to the pillbox. He was shot again, losing his left eye and was knocked to the ground.
But Drowley remained undaunted. Despite his injuries, he continued to walk alongside the tank until it was able to open fire on the enemy pillbox and destroy it. In the process, American forces discovered another pillbox behind the first and destroyed it as well. With his mission finally completed, Drowley returned to camp for medical treatment. When he reached the safety of the American outpost, his platoon leader admonished him for leaving his post. But the reason he left was quickly learned, and he was eventually recommended for the nation’s highest military honor.
Drowley was awarded the Medal of Honor on Sept. 6, 1944. After receiving the accolade, he was offered a commission and a chance to speak at war rallies, but Drowley declined and eventually left the service. He lived a quiet life for the rest of his years. In 1991, he told The Spokesman Review of Spokane, Washington, that he shied away from the title of hero.
“People say, ‘What did you do to get the Medal of Honor?’ You were only doing your job,” Drowley said. “You’re fearless, all right. You’re so damned scared you’re past fearless. But you’re going to get killed if you don’t do anything.”
Along with the Medal of Honor, Drowley was also awarded the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Clusters and two Bronze Stars. He was the first Americal Soldier to be awarded the medal and the division’s lone recipient for action in World War II. While recovering from his wounds at a hospital in Spokane, he met his future wife, Kathleen McAvoy. He returned to Washington after the war from his native St. Charles, Michigan. He operated a service station before working as a civilian employee at Fairchild Air Force Base. He retired in 1980.
Drowley died May 20, 1996. He was 76. He was buried at Fairmount Memorial Park in Spokane.
A new exhibit at the Noncommissioned Officer Heritage and Education Center at Fort Bliss, Texas, remembers the military service of Sgt. Richard Rogers, who fought in World War II.
“Throughout our tour, we highlight individual NCOs because it personalizes it for you,” said Sgt. 1st Class Skeet Styer, NCO in charge at the center. “It gives you a better feel for what it was like for NCOs throughout different periods of history.”
Rogers’ daughter, Lorraine Fidonik of Addison, Illinois, donated her father’s medals and other artifacts, and provided all the information she could about his service.
On display are Rogers’ medals – including a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with V device, a Purple Heart and four campaign stars – all engraved with his name on the back, photographs of him during his service, his burial flag, and the rifle cartridges from his 21-gun salute. The exhibit even includes his high school diploma and photographs from his childhood – one of him as a baby with a head full of curls, and another of him as a toddler, playing with his dog in the yard in front of his house.
“I realized the most important and satisfying time in his life were the years he spent in the Army, and he was very proud of his achievements,” Fidonik said. “I felt that would all be lost if somehow his story wasn’t shared and his medals just gathered dust in my attic. I wanted to send them someplace where someone would care about them. I’m so pleased with what they have done with the exhibit. Hopefully it will help teach others a little bit about what it was like back then.”
Rogers’ early life
Rogers was born April 16, 1917, in Montgomery City, Missouri. He grew up on his parents’ farm, planting, cultivating and harvesting grain crops alongside his father. He graduated from high school in 1936 before enlisting in the Army 1939 as a rifleman with the 6th Infantry Regiment at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri.
The next year, when the 41st Armored Infantry Regiment was born, Rogers was assigned to train new Soldiers who had just finished basic training.
“Rogers probably became an NCO so quickly and was given that position because of his experience and education. Very few were able to finish high school in those days. During the Great Depression, school was just not a priority.” said Leigh Smith Jr., curator of the center. “He was also a little older than the 17- or 18-year-old kids coming in. So the younger Soldiers who were drafted, those guys looked up to NCOs like Sgt. Rogers because they had that experience and maturity. His reading and writing skills helped him when developing the unit’s standard operating procedures. … A higher education level had a huge impact on Soldiers’ careers back then as well.”
Memories of the war
Rogers went on to fight with A Company, 1st Battalion, 41st Armored Infantry Regiment, 2nd Armored Division in the invasion of North Africa in 1942, the invasion of Sicily in 1943, the invasion and breakout from Normandy in 1944, and the Battle of the Bulge that same year. He was wounded and hospitalized at least three times during his service.
Like many veterans, Rogers didn’t want to dwell on difficult and painful memories after he came back from the war. But an incredible history can be gleaned from historical documents and the few stories he shared with his daughter.
“He never really spoke of his service,” Fidonik said. “Only in later years, after my mother had died, did he occasionally mention a few things. I asked him to tell me the stories of his medals so they would not be lost, and he said he had never told anyone, not even my mother.”
One time, Fidonik said, her father recalled making his way back to friendly lines alone. There was no place to take cover when morning came, so he slit the belly of a dead cow, swollen and stinking from decomposition, and crawled inside to wait for nightfall before continuing his journey.
When Rogers shared his memories of the breakout from Normandy at St. Lo, the battle in which he earned the Silver Star, he recalled being in a field where “not much was going on.” He made a trade with a Soldier next to him for the watch he was wearing. Just as Rogers took the watch – which is included in the exhibit – the Soldier was shot. He told Fidonik that as the battle began, everyone around him was falling.
“He finally picked up a bazooka and fired until he ran out of ammo,” Fidonik said. “By now he was ‘angry!’ When he saw a tank, he said he ‘ran after it, climbed on top, opened it and dropped in a grenade.’”
The next thing Rogers remembered was waking up in a hospital in England. Fidonik’s mother told her that her father later left the hospital with a 105-degree fever and returned to his unit to fight in the Battle of the Bulge.
“He said he was never so cold in his life as he was there,” Fidonik said.
Fidonik remembers another time, when her father mentioned Mark Bando’s book Breakout at Normandy – the 2nd Armored Division in the Land of the Dead. The book describes Rogers’ platoon leading an assault on SS- Sturmbannführer Christian Tychsen, a notable Panzer Division officer whose rank was the equivalent of a U.S. colonel.
According to the book, Rogers’ platoon ambushed Tychsen’s vehicle, which then careened off the elevated road into a ditch. Tychsen was hit, and the driver was most likely killed in the crash.
Rogers showed his daughter the cover of the book, which features a photograph of Tychsen. He pointed to Tychsen’s photo and told Fidonik he was the one who had killed him.
Rogers finished World War II in Germany on the Elbe River, and was one of the two A Company Soldiers remaining of the unit’s original 150 men.
“He told me that his platoon took a hill, and after the fight only his lieutenant and he were left,” Fidonik said. “They started back down, but night overtook them and they looked for a ‘safe’ place to spend the night. Seeing an old barn, they entered and found it filled with dead German soldiers – ‘stacked like cordwood.’ He and his lieutenant climbed on top of the pile, burrowed down into the middle and spent the night.”
Life after the fight
After the war, Rogers and his wife, who was working in naval intelligence when they met, lived in Chicago. Until his retirement, he worked as a lithographer in a print shop that published the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue. Fidonik was born in 1948, and her sister, Deborah, was born seven years later.
Though Rogers never mentioned his years in the war when the girls were growing up, Fidonik remembers her dad lying across her mother’s lap while she opened a drain at the bottom of a long, wide scar on his back, and tracking a piece of shrapnel that would “travel” in his arm.
Toward the end of his life, Rogers spent a lot of his time with other veterans at his American Legion post. He was able to open up more than ever before when surrounded by others with similar experiences, and eventually spoke to Fidonik about his memories.
Holding onto history
“We want others to see what noncommissioned officers have done through the ages,” Smith said. “We are trying to show the younger generation of Soldiers coming through today what their great-grandparents, grandparents, parents have done before them. The history needs to be continued.
“All of the Soldiers who come through here, eventually they will be noncommissioned officers. This is their museum. Retirees who come through want to see how we are remembering their service. People who served in Vietnam, Desert Storm, Desert Shield. People who served in World War II, Korea. We want to help remember those folks, because they helped shape the Army today.”
Styer said young Soldiers and NCOs are often shocked to discover that Soldiers in Rogers’ day didn’t get to come home unless they were wounded, and often, not even then. Rogers was deployed for 33 months.
“The only time they got pulled off the line was when they were wounded,” Styer said. “Then they spent some time in the hospital and went through rest and recuperation – R&R. When these guys realize, ‘Wow, my grandfather didn’t get to come back until after the war,’ they realize they have it pretty good.”
It is the personal stories, like Rogers’, that hit closest to home, Smith said. Each one brings history to life and helps new Soldiers relate to the Soldiers of the past.
“We are losing these World War II veterans at a staggering rate,” Smith said. “Every day, 1,500 are passing away. And we are losing those stories. I think what is important for the younger generation to understand is that the history books are filled with the basic knowledge. We know what happened at Pearl Harbor. We know what happened at Normandy. But we don’t know about the individual stories. Every single Soldier who served and fought has a different story, because they saw it through their eyes. It’s our responsibility to keep their stories alive.”
When the 3rd Infantry Division reached the shores of France on Aug. 15, 1944, the Rock of the Marne had already seen several examples of gallantry from its Soldiers that were worthy of the nation’s highest honor. It took only two days to witness another.
Staff Sgt. Stanley Bender stood tall as a barrage of German gunfire barreled toward him before helping his unit gain a crucial position near La Londe, France. Bender was part of E Company, 7th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division. The unit made landfall in southern France after spending the previous 21 months engaged in battles throughout North Africa and Sicily as part of the 3rd ID’s Operation Torch. The men of the 3rd ID would eventually be awarded 15 Medals of Honor for their actions in Italy. Bender would join their ranks when he leapt into action after one of the company’s tanks was disabled.
The division was beginning its push north through France to close the gap on German forces who were scurrying east in a hasty retreat from Allied forces, which had landed two months earlier at Normandy. Bender’s unit encountered heavy German resistance near the town of La Londe. When a volley of machine-gun fire halted an American tank, the company was pinned down. Bender scrambled to the top of the disabled tank and scanned the horizon to find the source of gunfire. He stood bravely in full view of the enemy while a steady stream of bullets careened off the turret below him for more than two minutes, according to his Medal of Honor citation. He eventually saw muzzle flashes flaring from a knoll 200 yards away. From there, Bender leapt off the tank and into history.
According to the citation, Bender ordered two squads to cover him as he took a group of Soldiers through an irrigation ditch toward the enemy gunfire. For the first 50 yards of their advance, they were sprayed with intense fire, resulting in four Soldiers being wounded. Bender ended up alone ahead of the squad and stood his ground while the Germans hurled grenades into the ditch. Once the squad reached his position, Bender set out for the German stronghold. He wound his way to the rear of the enemy emplacement, then started marching toward it — alone. With no cover fire laid down for him, Bender traversed 40 yards as the occasional German and friendly fire whizzed past him. He reached the first machine gun and eliminated it with a short burst.
That caught the attention of another two-man machine-gun crew, which turned the weapon around and trained it on him. But Bender was unfazed. He walked calmly through the hail of fire and nullified the threat before signaling his men to rush the remaining rifle pits. Bender headed back to his squad’s position, killing another German rifleman along the way, and together they charged the remaining eight German soldiers in the machinegun nest. The attack galvanized the rest of the assault company, with Soldiers spring from their positions shouting. The company eventually overpowered an enemy roadblock, knocked out two anti-tank guns, killed 37 Germans and captured 26 others.
The attack also resulted in the capture of three bridges over the Maravenne River and command of key terrain in southern France. Bender’s actions were in keeping with the “conspicuous gallantry and the intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty,” worthy of the nation’s highest honor. He was awarded the Medal of Honor on Feb. 1, 1945.
After his service, Bender had two bridges named in his honor on the West Virginia Turnpike, one in 1954 and the other in 1987. In addition to his Medal of Honor, Bender, who joined the Army in December 1939, was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, as well as the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and seven battle stars. He died June 22, 1994, at age 84 in Oak Hill, W.Va. He was buried in High Lawn Memorial Park in Oak Hill.
By STAFF SGT. WHITNEY HOUSTON
ISAF Regional Command-South
People, like coal, under the right conditions of pressure and heat, can be transformed from their raw material or potential into gems.
Sgt. Andrew Mahoney, a Laingsburg, Mich., native, who was recently named the USO Soldier of the Year, has been in that refining process of heat and pressure since he joined the Army in 2007. A communication specialist with the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Mahoney has shaped himself into an invaluable noncommissioned officer.
“Mahoney’s been in the brigade for almost seven years, and he’s already on his third deployment with the same unit,” said Master Sgt. Philip Brennan, who serves as brigade communications chief with the 4th IBCT. “He is our subject-matter expert when it comes to tactical communications. He’s our hub in the brigade, filling a slot of a senior member as a young NCO, because of his very advanced skill as a communicator.”
Brennan explained that Mahoney didn’t become a master of his trade overnight.
“He has made himself smart on a lot of communications systems. He’s a qualified digital master gunner, which is very important in the signal (communications) world. It allows you to become masters of local area networks in tactical environments and to cross-level that knowledge over to other systems, and to train the upcoming generation of Army communicators.”
Mahoney served on personal security details his first two deployments, protecting the brigade commanders and command sergeants major in their comings and goings. One day, while on his second deployment in Regional Command-East, he and his PSD team were escorting their brigade commander, Col. James Mingus, Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin J. Griffin, and others to a security meeting in Asadabad, Afghanistan. They suddenly found themselves in an attack coordinated by two suicide bombers. Mahoney and his platoon leader at the time, then-1st Lt. Florent Groberg, reacted quickly to the attack.
“It was like an eight-second window of when we realized what was happening. As soon as we rounded a corner, they (the suicide bombers) came out. We didn’t have time to process a thought, it just happened and we reacted,” Mahoney said.
Both Mahoney and Groberg proceeded to tackle one of the suicide bombers, and in the process, the explosives strapped to the assailant detonated.
“If I lost consciousness, it was only for a brief moment because he exploded. Things were fuzzy for just a second or two, and the next thing I knew, I was standing almost in the same spot, just in a cloud of dust,” Mahoney said. “I had some pretty bad flesh wounds on my arm, my shoulder and all up the back of my legs. But my body armor worked, I’ll tell you that much.
“The first thing I did is I looked down at my arm and it was all jacked up. It was a mess; you could see the bone and everything,” Mahoney said.
He looked up and saw Mingus on the other side of the street and rushed himself and his commander behind cover. Mingus then helped Mahoney tie a tourniquet to Mahoney’s arm.
Mahoney said he didn’t see Groberg until U.S. medical personnel were evacuating them out of the area by helicopter.
“I later found out that he (Groberg) had been blown across the street. He’s still recovering from a pretty bad wound to his leg, and is going through rehabilitation at Walter Reed [National Military] Medical Center” in Bethesda, Md.
Reflecting back on the incident, Mahoney can’t fully explain how exactly he and Groberg walked away from it.
“The only thing that we can conclude is that the blast went more into the ground than it did into us. But we don’t know.”
The second suicide bomber detonated right after the first one, which did considerable damage to the group, Mahoney said.
“We lost four people that day. We just passed the two year anniversary on Aug. 8.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Griffin, Maj. Thomas E. Kennedy, Air Force Maj. Walter D. Gray, and Ragaei Abdelfattah, a representative of the U.S. Agency for International Development, all died that day.
Mahoney was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds sustained, and a Silver Star for putting his life on the line that day for his comrades. More importantly, Mahoney brought away life lessons from the scene that continue to shape the way he lives daily life.
“I would say personally, more than professionally, I value living life every day, and I don’t sweat about the small stuff because it could have all been gone in an instant,” Mahoney said. “I wasn’t uptight before, but I am just less so now.
“Since those guys didn’t get to walk away from that incident the way we did, I live every day as a homage to them,” he said.
Mahoney married his wife Melanie as he was recovering from his wounds in the hospital in San Antonio. They now live in Fountain, Colo., with their two small children — Corbin, who is four years old, and Brooklynne, who is two.
Brennan explained that in the early spring , Mahoney will be assigned to the 7th U.S. Army NCO Academy in Grafenwöhr, Germany, where he plans to pass along his communication knowledge onto the next generation of signal NCOs.
“We thought this assignment in Germany would be perfect for him … to pass along his knowledge as a communications professional,” Brennan said.
Brennan has known Mahoney for less than a year, but immediately saw his value. When petitioned to put him in as a candidate for the USO Soldier of the Year, Brennan immediately got the paperwork turned in. Mahoney will receive the USO award in October.
“He’s got a dedication to serve, a dedication to his craft, and he’s a very humble young man,” Brennan said. “He totally deserves this award. He has learned a lot, and still has a lot to learn as an NCO. But whatever path he chooses, I have no doubt that he’ll do it well.”
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