Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Story of a WWII Medal of Honor: 1911 .45 pistol vs. Panzer tank

The latest issue of American Rifleman chronicles the use of John Moses Browning's 1911 .45 in the hands of winners of the Medal of Honor, including one from World War II that I have written about.
In December Cpl. Henry F. Warner of the Big Red One used a bazooka and his Colt to stop a German armored thrust. Warner’s citation says he won a pistol duel with the commander of a panzer threatening to overrun his position. The tank withdrew but the gallant North Carolinian was killed the next day.
It was not a bazooka Henry Warner used until it jammed, but a British 57mm anti-tank gun, vs. Panzer tanks.

But since it's my story, I'll just quote myself on the details of this heroic soldier who won the MOH.

1911 pistol vs. Panzer tank: 1911 wins

By John Myers, Internet Photojournalist

The Medal of Honor
1911 .45 ACP
The Medal of Honor is our nation's highest military award and a surprising number of those who earned it since its introduction just prior to World War I did so with the help of a 1911 .45 ACP Government Pistol or a 1911-A1 model.

Perhaps the most famous of these was Sgt. Alvin York in WWI.

He was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading an attack on a German machine gun nest, taking 32 machine guns, killing 28 German soldiers and capturing 132 others during the U.S.-led Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France.
He was made even more famous by Hollywood in the 1941 movie, "Sergeant York," which York allowed to be made on one condition, that Gary Cooper play the lead role.

But as usual, Hollywood got the details wrong, particularly in regards to the weapons York used.
The movie shows York/Cooper using a captured German Luger pistol in addition to his rifle to kill and capture a host of Germans.

Wrong! He used a Government Model 1911 .45 ACP pistol.

Also, the movie shows York with a Springfield 1903 rifle but he actually used a M1917 Enfield rifle. Wrong again! Similar rifles, both are 30'06 bolt-actions, but different models.

Everybody's heard of the famous Sergeant York, who actually was a corporal when he earned his medal of honor.

But I ran across another familiar name while reading a July 2000 American Handgunner article by Barrett Tiliman, The 1911 And The Medal Of Honor.

As I was reading through the pantheon of heroes, I found a familiar one most Americans never heard of, another corporal who took on the Germans with a 1911, this time in World War II.
Tillman writes that in the 75 years from 1918 to 1993, at least 55 Medals of Honor were presented to men carrying the .45 ACP.

This includes 20 known in World War II, a dozen in Korea, seven in Vietnam and, finally, two in Somalia.
The exact total, however, is unknown, as most citations only refer to "pistol" or "revolver" and some famous events do not mention sidearms at all.

As Tillman listed the WWII MOH winners who used 1911s, that familiar name surfaced:

Medal of Honor winner Cpl. Henry F. Warner
"Not only infantrymen used the service pistol in Medal of Honor actions. Two tankers were decorated for their exploits in France that October, and in December Cpl. H.F. Warner of the Big Red One used a bazooka and his Colt to stop a German armored thrust.

"Warner's citation says he won a pistol duel with the commander of a Panzer threatening to overrun his position; the tank withdrew."

Back in the early '90s, while I was working as a weekly newspaper editor, I interviewed the brother of Medal of Honor winner Cpl. Henry F. Warner of Troy, NC, who told me about how this hero died.

57 mm M1 anti-tank gun of the 44th Infantry Division in France, 1944.
Tillman got one detail wrong, Warner didn't use a bazooka along with his 1911 Colt against the German tanks. He used a 57mm anti-tank gun, a design we "borrowed" from the British, a notoriously underpowered artillery piece which was also prone to jam.

This weapon also offered scant protection for the gunner, who stood out in the open to fire it, the only "protection" being a single sheet of metal to duck down behind when taking fire.

His brother showed me Henry Warner's detailed Medal of Honor citation, which noted that his accurate fire with the 57mm gun was able to knock out the heavily armored German tanks only by hitting their one vulnerable spot as he maneuvered the small artillery piece like a squirrel rifle.

In the end, his refusal to retreat as he kept trying to clear his jammed 57mm while a German Mark IV Panzer tank attacked is what cost him his life.

1911 vs. Panzer tank: 1911 wins

Tillman accurately describes the famous 1911 episode on Dec. 20, 1944, when Warner knocked out two German tanks with his 57mm before his anti-tank gun jammed. The commander of a third tank saw Warner's gun was jammed and elected to finish him off personally with his pistol. Bad mistake.

Warner outshot the German in a pistol duel, killing the officer with his 1911 and forcing the tank to withdraw.
Here's a short version of Warner's Medal of Honor citation which covers his heroic fight during two days' actions in the Battle of the Bulge.


Rank and organization: Corporal, U.S. Army, Antitank Company, 2d Battalion, 26th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Dom Butgenbach, Belgium, 20-21 December 1944. Entered service at: Troy, N.C. Born: 23 August 1923, Troy, N.C. G.O. No.: 48, 23 June 1945. Citation: Serving as 57-mm. antitank gunner with the 2d Battalion, he was a major factor in stopping enemy tanks during heavy attacks against the battalion position near Dom Butgenbach, Belgium, on 20-21 December 1944. 
In the first attack, launched in the early morning of the 20th, enemy tanks succeeded in penetrating parts of the line. Cpl. Warner, disregarding the concentrated cannon and machinegun fire from 2 tanks bearing down on him, and ignoring the imminent danger of being overrun by the infantry moving under tank cover, destroyed the first tank and scored a direct and deadly hit upon the second. A third tank approached to within 5 yards of his position while he was attempting to clear a jammed breech lock. Jumping from his gun pit, he engaged in a pistol duel with the tank commander standing in the turret, killing him and forcing the tank to withdraw.
Following a day and night during which our forces were subjected to constant shelling, mortar barrages, and numerous unsuccessful infantry attacks, the enemy struck in great force on the early morning of the 21st. Seeing a Mark IV tank looming out of the mist and heading toward his position, Cpl. Warner scored a direct hit. Disregarding his injuries, he endeavored to finish the loading and again fire at the tank whose motor was now aflame, when a second machinegun burst killed him. Cpl. Warner's gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty contributed materially to the successful defense against the enemy attacks.

Warner's brother showed me Henry's grave in Troy and told me about his childhood, growing up poor, just another country boy who could hit anything he could see with a squirrel rifle, putting meat on the table for his family, much like Alvin York.

There's a lot of confusion among the current generation as to just who or what is a hero. My generation, the baby boomers, didn't have that problem, we had the WWII vets for heroes, like Henry F. Warner. One of my boyhood heroes was Major Dick Bong, the "Ace of Aces" who shot down 40 Japanese planes during WWII in the Pacific.

It's a telling sign of our times that the men and women fighting and dying for their country in Iraq and Afghanistan are not considered heroes by many today. Even the cop on the street, protecting our lives daily, gets little or no respect, hardly seen as heroes.

Another of my boyhood heroes was my "Uncle Howard" Jordan, who really wasn't a relative at all, just a childhood friend of my father's who treated the five kids of our family like his own. He and his wife Lena had no kids, but they often had all five of us kids stay overnight at their home.

And I remember "Uncle Howard" showing up at my school in the first grade and telling the principal he was "Johnny's uncle" and had come to pick me up early. And then we'd go fishing. I remember sitting on a wooden bridge over Drowning Creek, not catching any fish, just having a good time with Uncle Howard. I didn't even know he was a WWII vet, he was just Uncle Howard to me and he was one of my heroes.

Last time I saw him was when I was about 10 and we visited Uncle Howard in the VA hospital. He was in a wheelchair and looked so frail and tired. That's when I learned he was a WWII vet. Not long after, he died.
My dad told me that Uncle Howard had to bail out of a damaged airplane over the desert in North Africa in WWII and landed in a huge cactus patch. He wasn't rescued until several days later, still trapped in the cactus. One of those cactus spines finally worked its way into his heart many years later and killed him, my daddy told me. He also told me that every now and then after the war, Uncle Howard would go "barking mad" and howl at the moon. But he never hurt anybody. Uncle Howard never won the Medal of Honor, but he was a hero to me.

One of my favorite preachers, Ravi Zacharias, tells the story of a 3rd grade teacher who asked her class of 8- and 9-year-olds to list three people who were their heroes. One listed Michael Jackson, Madonna and Boy George (which Zacharias notes "covers all three sexes.")

But a disturbingly high number listed themselves as their own hero. Such is the result of the current educational trend to boost "self-esteem" as the most important classroom goal. Perhaps that's why there's such a strange set of heroes for the current generation.

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