Vernon McGarity, 1921–2013

The WWII hero who won the Medal of Honor

Sgt. Vernon McGarity’s orders on the frigid morning of Dec. 16, 1944, were clear but hardly simple: to hold at all costs. His unit, the 99th Infantry Division, deployed near Krinkelt in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium, took the very first blow in the Germans’ fierce post–D-Day counteroffensive. Later known as the Battle of the Bulge, it would ultimately cost the lives of some 19,000 American soldiers. Before the infantry fighting even began that day, McGarity was wounded in a German artillery barrage, but he refused medical evacuation. Instead he returned to the field, where, according to his citation for the Medal of Honor, his “extraordinary bravery and extreme devotion to duty supported a remarkable delaying action,” allowing U.S. reserves to gather and slowly drive the Germans eastward toward their defeat.

McGarity risked his life on that first day of battle to rescue a wounded soldier, said The New York Times, and throughout the following night “he exhorted his comrades to repel the enemy.” The next morning the Germans redoubled their attack, and McGarity rose to the challenge, taking out the lead German tank with a rocket launcher, rescuing another wounded soldier, and silencing an enemy light cannon. By then, the Americans were running out of ammunition, so McGarity scuttled 100 yards toward the enemy to retrieve a hidden ammo cache, said The Washington Post. Armed with only a rifle, McGarity single-handedly killed or wounded all the Germans manning a machine-gun emplacement. Once his unit had depleted the last of its rounds, “McGarity was captured and spent much of the rest of the war in captivity, until the German surrender.”

When presenting McGarity with his Medal of Honor in October 1945, President Harry S. Truman said he’d rather have won the medal himself than be president, said the Paris, Tenn., Post-Intelligencer. McGarity responded that he would have preferred a farm in Henry County, Tenn., where he grew up. After the war, McGarity worked for the Veterans Administration, first in Indiana and later in Memphis, where he also served in the Tennessee National Guard and played and coached tennis. Though he never got his farm, the local fife and drum corps played in 1989 as the Henry County National Guard Armory was named in his honor.

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