Today’s Medal of Honor Moment for 28 May

The are eight Medals awarded for actions on this day.  Two during the Civil War, two during the Spanish-American War (one to a dashing fellow and his doggo, who could be Gunner’s who-knows-how-many-great-granddoggo). There’s a lifesaving award from the 20’s, a record-correction award to a very brave soldier breaking out of Anzio, and two braver-than-brave Marines during the Korean War.  Theirs are sadly posthumous.

Medal of Honor recipient Peter Johnson, a dashing sailor and his doggo who could be Gunner’s doppelganger. Courtesy CMOHS

CHRISTIANCY, James I RANK: FIRST LIEUTENANT UNIT/COMMAND: COMPANY D, 9TH MICHIGAN CAVALRY DATE: MAY 28, 1864 PLACE: HAWES SHOPS, VIRGINIA, USA
CITATION: While acting as aide, voluntarily led a part of the line into the fight, and was twice wounded.

STOREY, John H RANK: SERGEANT UNIT/COMMAND: COMPANY F, 109TH PENNSYLVANIA INFANTRY DATE: MAY 28, 1864 PLACE: DALLAS, GEORGIA, USA
CITATION: While bringing in a wounded comrade, under a destructive fire, he was himself wounded in the right leg, which was amputated on the same day.

Spanish-American War

JOHNSON, Peter RANK: FIREMAN FIRST CLASS UNIT/COMMAND: U.S.S. VIXEN DATE: MAY 28, 1898 PLACE: SANTIAGO DE CUBA
CITATION: On board the U.S.S. Vixen on the night of 28 May 1898. Following the explosion of the lower front manhole gasket of boiler A of the vessel, Johnson displayed great coolness and self-possession in entering the fireroom.

MAHONEY, George RANK: FIREMAN FIRST CLASS UNIT/COMMAND: U.S.S. VIXEN DATE: MAY 28, 1898 PLACE: SANTIAGO DE CUBA
CITATION: On board the U.S.S. Vixen on the night of 28 May 1898. Following the explosion of the lower front manhole gasket of boiler A of the vessel, Mahoney displayed great coolness and self-possession in entering the fireroom.

INTERIM 1899 – 1910

SHANAHAN, Patrick RANK: CHIEF BOATSWAIN’S MATE (HIGHEST RANK: LIEUTENANT) UNIT/COMMAND: U.S. TRAINING SHIP ALLIANCE DATE: MAY 28, 1899 PLACE: OFF ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND
CITATION: On board the U.S.S. Alliance, 28 May 1899. Displaying heroism, Shanahan rescued William Stevens, quartermaster first class, from drowning.

WWII

DAVILA, RUDOLPH B.

Staff Sergeant Rudolph B. Davila distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action, on 28 May 1944, near Artena, Italy. During the offensive which broke through the German mountain strongholds surrounding the Anzio beachhead, Staff Sergeant Davila risked death to provide heavy weapons support for a beleaguered rifle company. Caught on an exposed hillside by heavy, grazing fire from a well-entrenched German force, his machine gunners were reluctant to risk putting their guns into action. Crawling fifty yards to the nearest machine gun, Staff Sergeant Davila set it up alone and opened fire on the enemy. In order to observe the effect of his fire, Sergeant Davila fired from the kneeling position, ignoring the enemy fire that struck the tripod and passed between his legs. Ordering a gunner to take over, he crawled forward to a vantage point and directed the firefight with hand and arm signals until both hostile machine guns were silenced. Bringing his three remaining machine guns into action, he drove the enemy to a reserve position two hundred yards to the rear. When he received a painful wound in the leg, he dashed to a burned tank and, despite the crash of bullets on the hull, engaged a second enemy force from the tank’s turret. Dismounting, he advanced 130 yards in short rushes, crawled 20 yards and charged into an enemy-held house to eliminate the defending force of five with a hand grenade and rifle fire. Climbing to the attic, he straddled a large shell hole in the wall and opened fire on the enemy. Although the walls of the house were crumbling, he continued to fire until he had destroyed two more machine guns. His intrepid actions brought desperately needed heavy weapons support to a hard-pressed rifle company and silenced four machine gunners, which forced the enemy to abandon their prepared positions. Staff Sergeant Davila’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army.

Korea

*CHAMPAGNE, David B RANK: CORPORAL UNIT/COMMAND: COMPANY A, 1ST BATTALION, 7TH MARINES, 1ST MARINE DIVISION (REIN) DATE: MAY 28, 1952 PLACE: KOREA
CITATION: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a fire team leader of Company A, in action against enemy aggressor forces. Advancing with his platoon in the initial assault of the company against a strongly fortified and heavily defended hill position, Cpl. Champagne skillfully led his fire team through a veritable hail of intense enemy machine-gun, small-arms, and grenade fire, overrunning trenches and a series of almost impregnable bunker positions before reaching the crest of the hill and placing his men in defensive positions. Suffering a painful leg wound while assisting in repelling the ensuing hostile counterattack, which was launched under cover of a murderous hail of mortar and artillery fire, he steadfastly refused evacuation and fearlessly continued to control his fire team. When the enemy counterattack increased in intensity, and a hostile grenade landed in the midst of the fire team, Cpl. Champagne unhesitatingly seized the deadly missile and hurled it in the direction of the approaching enemy. As the grenade left his hand, it exploded, blowing off his hand and throwing him out of the trench. Mortally wounded by enemy mortar fire while in this exposed position, Cpl. Champagne, by his valiant leadership, fortitude, and gallant spirit of self-sacrifice in the face of almost certain death, undoubtedly saved the lives of several of his fellow marines. His heroic actions served to inspire all who observed him and reflect the highest credit upon himself and the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

*KELLY, John D RANK: PRIVATE FIRST CLASS UNIT/COMMAND: COMPANY C, 1ST BATTALION, 7TH MARINES, 1ST MARINE DIVISION (REIN) DATE: MAY 28, 1952 PLACE: KOREA
CITATION: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a radio operator of Company C, in action against enemy aggressor forces. With his platoon pinned down by a numerically superior enemy force employing intense mortar, artillery, small-arms, and grenade fire, Pfc. Kelly requested permission to leave his radio in the care of another man and to participate in an assault on enemy key positions. Fearlessly charging forward in the face of a murderous hail of machine-gun fire and hand grenades, he initiated a daring attack against a hostile strongpoint and personally neutralized the position, killing two of the enemy. Unyielding in the face of heavy odds, he continued forward and singlehandedly assaulted a machine-gun bunker. Although painfully wounded, he bravely charged the bunker and destroyed it, killing three of the enemy. Courageously continuing his one-man assault, he again stormed forward in a valiant attempt to wipe out a third bunker and boldly delivered point-blank fire into the aperture of the hostile emplacement. Mortally wounded by enemy fire while carrying out this heroic action, Pfc. Kelly, by his great personal valor and aggressive fighting spirit, inspired his comrades to sweep on, overrun and secure the objective. His extraordinary heroism in the face of almost certain death reflects the highest credit upon himself and enhances the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

One of my themes when teaching military history or blathering about it here on the blog is that wars are won at the small unit level.  They can be lost by any level. Eisenhower and MacArthur and Marshall and King have to do their jobs well.  But if the small unit level is not sound, and does not produce good small unit leaders who can step just beyond the line of duty, you won’t win, absent a huge combat power overmatch.

We hear about the Pattons, Bradleys, and Eisenhowers.  We rarely hear about the Staff Sergeant Davilas, Corporal Champagnes, or PFC Kellys.  But without those fighters and leaders, well, our understanding and view of Patton, Bradley, Puller and Eisenhower would be markedly different from what it is now.  The Army history of WWII, in the big books that cover the Italian Campaign, doesn’t mention Davila and his fight at all – and in fact, except for one smaller book on the Rome-Arno Campaign, doesn’t mention the fighting on 28 May, 1944 – which resulted in the breakthrough that allowed Allied units to enter Rome on 6 June, an event overshadowed by a different battle, in France.

Alexander had intended the VI Corps breakout to be the start of the second thrust aimed at destroying German resistance south of Rome. However, Clark had never accepted Alexander’s view that the liberation of Rome was secondary to the destruction of the German armies in Italy. The American Fifth Army commander was now convinced that Alexander’s plan to trap the enemy at Valmontone was impossible because of the heavy concentration of German troops in the area. Fearing that the Caesar Line would prove too difficult an obstacle for VI Corps, influenced by intelligence reports which indicated that the area north of Anzio was being denuded of enemy troops, and wanting Americans to liberate Rome, Clark decided to shift the bulk of VI Corps to the north for an all-out drive on the Italian capital. Brushing aside Truscott’s protests, and without consulting his staff or Alexander, Clark ordered the 3d Division and 1st Special Service Force to continue toward Valmontone, but he directed the 1st Armored and the 34th, 45th, and 36th Infantry Divisions to join the northern advance of the 85th and 88th Divisions.

Some historians have argued that Clark’s decision to shift the direction of the offensive allowed a significant portion of the enemy’s army to escape past Valmontone, since the weakened American forces in the vicinity and the Eighth Army still struggling up the Liri valley thirty miles to the south were not capable of preventing that movement. Meanwhile, north of Anzio, the redirected Fifth Army units began to encounter increasingly stiff resistance from enemy units now dug in on the Caesar Line. Although Alexander accepted Clark’s fait accompli with good grace, the Allies were unable to destroy the German armies south of Rome and possibly end the Italian campaign in June 1944. In addition, the slow progress made by the 45th and 34th Divisions between 27 and 30 May indicated the possibility of a renewed stalemate just miles south of Rome.

Yet on the evening of 27-28 May, patrols of the 36th Division scored a major coup when they discovered a gap between the 362d Infantry and Hermann Goering Divisions atop Monte Artemisio. In a move which more than made up for the 36th Division’s earlier failure on the Rapido, the 141st, 142d, and 143d Infantry regiments quickly occupied the heights, and artillerymen soon brought Highway 6, the main German supply line, under fire at Valmontone. To General Truscott this was the turning point in the Allied drive to the north. Kesselring was furious with Mackensen for allowing the ridgeline to fall and ordered it retaken at all costs. But all of the German counterattacks failed, and when Valmontone became untenable because of American artillery fire, Mackensen was relieved of command and replaced by Lt. Gen. Joachim Lemelsen.

The new Fourteenth Army commander could do little to reverse the tide of events. When units of the II and VI Corps began to exploit the gap made by the 36th Division, and when the FEC and Eighth Army renewed their attacks (north of Frosinone), Kesselring was forced on 2 June to order all German units to break off contact and withdraw north. Declaring Rome an open city on 3 June, the Tenth and Fourteenth Armies conducted an orderly retreat through the city. Only the suburbs were contested. On orders from Hitler, the wholesale vandalism and demolitions that had characterized the evacuation of Naples the previous fall were not repeated.

Dozens, if not hundreds of little fights like Davila’s made those paragraphs read the way they read.  And since some of those paragraphs talk about slow progress, the Germans clearly had some good small unit leaders on the battlefield, as well.

Lieutenant Davila (via a battlefield commission) is one of those uniquely American stories, in ways both good and bad – none of the bad attaching to Davila.  Born in El Paso to a Spanish father and Filipino mother, he was raised in California.  While recommended for a Medal of Honor, he was instead awarded a Distinguished Service Cross.  Davila’s wife Harriet, believing that Davila’s ethnicity played into his not receiving the Medal of Honor, campaigned on his behalf.  Because of her efforts, and others, Davila was among the 21 Asian-Americans awarded Medals of Honor in 2000.  But that was too late for Harriet, who died several months prior to the award.

*Asterisk indicates a posthumous award.

Published by The Armorer

A grumpy old Cincinnatus who feeds goats, dogs, cats, ducks, peafowl, a horse, and sundry avians, especially in the winter. From time to time you will see guns. Until such time as the Progressives repeal the 2nd Amendment, everything you see is legal, Federal, State, Local, where I live. Your progressive paradise may have different rules. Don't project them onto me. Federalism still exists, even if it is but a shadow of what the Framers intended.

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