Tag Archives: World War II

This Month in NCO History: Jan. 30, 1944 — Riding a tank to victory at Bougainville

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.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa

 

This Month in NCO History: Sept. 1, 1950 — Holding the tank at Naktong Bulge

The light fog that enveloped the western shore of the Naktong River near Agok, South Korea, began dissipating at dawn Sept. 1, 1950.

As the sun dispersed the vapor, it revealed a grisly scene — scores of slain North Korean troops along with the lightly damaged remains of an M26 Pershing tank. During a brief lull in the chaos that had occurred for 10 hours, one man emerged from the iron behemoth. It was Sgt. 1st Class Ernest R. Kouma. The leader of a four-vehicle patrol from the 2nd Infantry Division was fatigued and hobbled by wounds inflicted during the firefight. He ambled out of the tank without facing enemy fire for the first time since the previous night. Kouma was placed in a truck and sent for medical treatment. He would go on to find a place in history as a recipient of the nation’s highest military honor.

Kouma was part of A Company, 72nd Tank Battalion when it arrived on the Korean Peninsula with the rest of the 2nd ID in late August 1950. The division moved into line at the Pusan Perimeter, replacing the 24th Infantry Division, where U.S. forces were establishing a defensive line around the city of Pusan in southeast Korea after war broke out June 25. Kouma was part of two infantry squads from A Company that were holding a roadblock with the 9th Infantry Regiment near Agok, a small village at the base of a hill about 300 yards from the Naktong River and at the southern tip of the 2nd ID’s boundary. The Soldiers were situated on a hill overlooking the town. The night of Aug. 31, Kouma took two tanks and two M19 Gun Motor Carriages on a patrol below the ridge line near the site of a ferry that traversed the river.

It was at this spot that the North Korean Army attempted to carry out an offensive to cut off a supply route between Daegu and Pusan. The enemy was unaware that the 2nd ID had relieved the 24th and expected to move over the Naktong River with ease. Behind that assumption a force of about 500 amassed on the side of the river opposite the small American patrol.

Kouma and his fellow Soldiers heard dogs barking in the darkness before a heavy mortar barrage began peppering their side of the river. A thick fog blanketed the river that night and the Americans couldn’t see across the water. When the fog lifted slightly at 10:30 p.m., Kouma was stunned to see that not only were enemy soldiers laying a pontoon bridge across the river, they had nearly completed the task.

He and his gunner opened fire, quickly destroying the bridge. But the battle was on as the North Korean soldiers began crossing the river en masse. After the infantry Soldiers received orders to withdraw to higher ground, Kouma’s opted to remain with his armored unit and act as rearguard for the infantry, according to his Medal of Honor citation. In the small arms fire that ensued, he was wounded in the foot while reloading the tank’s ammunition. Despite his wound, he fought off another North Korean attack across the river with his machine gun.

Kouma’s force was then ambushed by a group of North Koreans dressed in U.S. military uniforms. The impostors ran to Kouma’s position and told him — in excellent English — that a large force was approaching his position. They then hurled grenades at the American vehicles as machine gun and rifle fire began pelting the tank from a bluff overlooking their position. Kouma was wounded in the shoulder during the exchange but he stayed in the fight, beating back repeated North Korean crossings with his machine gun. Several strong attacks came within feet of the tank, but Kouma was able to drive them back despite his wounds. Eventually, the other three vehicles withdrew or were neutralized, with Kouma staying behind. At one point, the tank was surrounded and he had to engage the North Koreans from outside the tank with machine-gun fire at point-blank range. Kouma held the Agok crossing site until 7:30 the following morning with him resorting to using his pistol and grenades to hold off his attackers after the tank’s ammunition was expended.

The tank then withdrew 8 miles to the newly established American lines, destroying three North Korean machine-gun positions along the way. According to his citation, Kouma killed 250 North Korean troops, a number that surpassed the count of highly decorated Army soldier Audie Murphy, who was credited with 240 kills during World War II.

After he reached safety, Kouma attempted to resupply his tank and return to the front lines. Instead, the wounded Soldier was ordered to evacuate for medical treatment. As he was being evacuated, Kouma again requested to return to the front lines, according to his citation.

Kouma returned to duty three days later. Not long after, he was promoted to master sergeant and sent to the United States where he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman on May 19, 1951, during a ceremony at the White House.

Kouma served as a tank gunnery instructor for the U.S. Army Armor School at Fort Knox, Kentucky, for the remainder of the Korean War. He retired from service as a master sergeant in 1971 after a 31-year career, which included stints at Fort Carson, Colorado, and Germany. Kouma originally enlisted in 1940 in his native Dwight, Nebraska, and saw combat in Germany while serving as a tank commander during World War II. He spent his remaining years in McDaniels, Kentucky. Kouma died Dec. 19, 1993, at the age of 74. He was buried at the Fort Knox post cemetery.

  • Compiled by Pablo Villa

POW master sergeant told Nazis, ‘We are all Jews’

Near the end of World War II, Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds was the senior noncommissioned officer among a group of prisoners of war in Germany’s Stalag IXA, near Ziegenhain.

Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)
Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Sometime in January 1945, German forces instructed all Jewish POWs to report the next morning. Edmonds was in charge of the prisoners, which included Jews and non-Jews. He ordered all of his Soldiers to stand together when the Jewish prisoners were to report.

When the German officer in charge saw that all the camp’s inmates were standing in front of their barracks, he turned to Edmonds and said, “They cannot all be Jews.”

“We are all Jews,” Edmonds replied.

The German officer drew his pistol and threatened Edmonds, but the master sergeant was unfazed.

“According to the Geneva Convention, we have to give only our name, rank, and serial number,” Edmonds told the German officer. “If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war, you will be tried for war crimes.”

The German officer stalked away.

A year ago today, Edmonds was honored as one of the Righteous Among the Nations — an official designation for non-Jews who risked their lives to protect Jews during the Holocaust. The designation is bestowed by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

Edmonds is one of only five Americans to receive the honor, and the only American Soldier.

Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama honored Edmonds, as well as another American and a Polish couple named Righteous Among the Nations, at the first such Yad Vashem awards ceremony in the United States.

Obama quoted Edmonds in his address at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., saying “We are all Jews” before warning of rising anti-Semitism and other bigotry.

“Too often, especially in times of change, especially in times of anxiety and uncertainty, we are too willing to give in to a base desire to find someone else, someone different, to blame for our struggles,” Obama said Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. “So here, tonight, we must confront the reality that around the world anti-Semitism is on the rise. We cannot deny it.”

Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds (front row, second from left) at Camp Atterbury, Indiana. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)
Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds (front row, second from left) at Camp Atterbury, Indiana. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Edmonds, of Knoxville, Tennessee, was with the 422nd Infantry Regiment. He participated in the landing of American forces in Europe and was taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge.

Paul Stern, who was also taken prisoner during that battle, was Jewish and stood near Edmonds during the exchange. “Although seventy years have passed,” Stern told Yad Vashem, “I can still hear the words he said to the German camp commander.”

Lester Tanner, who had also been captured in the Battle of the Bulge, witnessed the exchange, as well.

Tanner had been inducted into military service in March 1943 and had trained at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, before being assigned to Edmonds’ 422nd Infantry Regiment. Edmonds was the highest-ranking NCO in the 422nd, and Tanner remembered him well from his training.

The main street of Stalag IX A POW camp, near Ziegenhain, Germany. Photo taken in 1942. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)
The main street of Stalag IX A POW camp, near Ziegenhain, Germany. Photo taken in 1942. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

“He did not throw his rank around. You knew he knew his stuff, and he got across to you without being arrogant or inconsiderate. I admired him for his command, …” Tanner said. “We were in combat on the front lines for only a short period, but it was clear that Roddie Edmonds was a man of great courage who led his men with the same capacity we had come to know him in the States.”

Tanner told Yad Vashem that by January 1945, the POWs were well aware that the Germans were murdering Jews. They therefore understood that the order to separate the Jews from the other POWs meant that the Jews were in great danger.

“I would estimate that there were more than 1,000 Americans standing in wide formation in front of the barracks, with Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds standing in front of the formation with several senior noncoms beside him, of which I was one, …” Tanner said. “There was no question in my mind or that of Master Sgt. Edmonds that the Germans were removing the Jewish prisoners from the general prisoner population at great risk to their survival. The U.S. Army’s standing command to its ranking officers in POW camps is that you resist the enemy and care for the safety of your men to the extent possible. Master Sgt. Edmonds, at the risk of his immediate death, defied the Germans with the unexpected consequences that the Jewish prisoners were saved.”

Chris Edmonds, Roddie’s son and a pastor, told Yad Vashem that his father had kept a diary in the camp, where he also had other POWs write down their names and addresses.

Edmonds was recruited again during the Korean War. He died in 1985.

“Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds seemed like an ordinary American Soldier, but he had an extraordinary sense of responsibility and dedication to his fellow human beings,” Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev said . “These attributes form the common thread that binds members of this select group of Righteous Among the Nations. The choices and actions of Master Sgt. Edmonds set an example for his fellow American soldiers as they stood united against the barbaric evil of the Nazis.”

— Compiled by Clifford Kyle Jones

NCO Heritage and Education Center exhibit tells story of World War II NCO

By MEGHAN PORTILLO
NCO Journal

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

Richard Rogers, circa 1921
Richard Rogers, circa 1921

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

Sgt. Richard Rogers in Sicily, circa 1943
Sgt. Richard Rogers in Sicily, circa 1943

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.

Sgt. Richard Rogers poses with a fellow Soldier in France, circa 1944. On the back of the photo is written, "Where I live and work. Nice, huh? That's me on the right."
Sgt. Richard Rogers poses with a fellow Soldier in France, circa 1944. On the back of the photo is written, “Where I live and work. Nice, huh? That’s me on the right.”

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

Sgt. Richard Rogers' discharge photo was taken in 1945.
Sgt. Richard Rogers’ discharge photo was taken in 1945.

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.”

This Month in NCO History: Nov. 16, 1944 — Undaunted infantryman wins Würselen

Joyce Horner was going through old paperwork at her home in Columbus, Georgia, shortly after her marriage to Freeman V. Horner when she came upon something surprising. It was documentation that showed her husband was a recipient of the nation’s highest military honor. Shocked, she asked her husband why he had never disclosed that he was awarded the Medal of Honor for actions during World War II. His response was, “Nothin’ to tell.”

Far from the truth.

Freeman V. Horner was a staff sergeant with K Company, 119th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division, in November 1944. The “Old Hickory” division was fresh off a victory Oct. 16 at the Battle of Aachen in which it helped the 1st Infantry Division encircle and secure the heavily fortified German city in one of the largest urban battles fought by U.S. forces in World War II. Aachen was the first city on German soil captured by the Allies. After a brief respite, the unit pushed northeast toward the Inde River.

On Nov. 16, K Company encountered resistance upon approach to the town of Würselen. Machine-gun fire began raining down on the group from houses on the edge of town. The Americans were pinned down in flat, open terrain 100 yards from their objective. As they took cover in the field, enemy artillery observers trained their fire on them and inflicted serious casualties.

Horner knew the unit would eventually be eliminated if it remained in the precarious position. That’s when he pulled off a feat that — despite his recalcitrance decades later in Georgia — would be talked about for generations to come.

Horner secured his ammunition and grenades, then sprinted toward the homes as a hail of gunfire whizzed by him, according to his Medal of Honor citation. He reached what he thought was a safe vantage point halfway to the buildings and identified two positions from which enemy fire was originating. As he pondered his next step, fire from a third machine-gun nest opened up on him. Horner coolly wheeled and killed the two gunners with a single short burst from his rifle. He then resumed his run toward the homes as bullets kicked up dirt at his feet.

Whether through fear or strategic ploy, the Germans abandoned their guns as Horner reached the building. Horner was unscathed and could hear the enemy soldiers scramble into the cellar of the home. The intrepid infantryman burst into the building and hurled two grenades down the cellar stairs. Four men emerged from the lower floor with their hands up.

Horner single-handedly neutralized three enemy machine-gun positions, killed or captured seven German soldiers and cleared the path for his company’s eventual successful assault on Würselen. For his actions, Horner was awarded the Medal of Honor on Oct. 30, 1945.

After the war Horner, who was born June 7, 1922, in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania, briefly separated from the Army but rejoined and earned a commission through Officer Candidate School. He reached the rank of major and served in the Korean War before retiring. He married Joyce Horner after the death of his first wife, Agnes, in 1982. He rarely spoke about his actions in Germany. Not even his longtime Columbus neighbor, Robert B. Nett, a retired colonel and fellow Medal of Honor recipient, was privy to tales of Horner’s heroism. Nett told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in 2005 that the two “never talked shop.”

Nonetheless, Horner’s extraordinary courage was a living embodiment of the 119th Regiment’s motto — “Undaunted” — and he remains one of the most celebrated Soldiers of the now-defunct 30th ID. Horner died Dec. 1, 2005, in Columbus at the age of 83 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. A section of U.S. Route 27 in Cataula, Georgia, as well as Georgia Route 219 in Columbus was named for him.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa