Courage Knows No Color: Three Artillery Heroes of World War II
Medal of Honor winners conjure up images of soldiers charging headlong at enemy positions with bayonets fixed and holding fast against a withering blast of enemy fire. Most of the time, it was a lone infantryman in a desperate situation forced to save his men. Modern weapons changed all that. In World War II, the front line came to all the men of the combat arms like never before. Certainly tankers had their fare share of heroic fights. American tanks were notorious for easily going up in flames. Engineers were called on many times to stand and fight as infantry, particularly during the Battle of the Bulge. So it was for the artillerymen.
Forward Observers certainly faced the same dangers as the rifleman; many times it was for a few weeks. Gun crews could face withering counterbattery fire. The infantry thought it was a safe billet; to them anyone in a gun crew lived a life of relative luxury, safe from the unrelenting fire and freezing, wet foxholes of the front line. In subsequent conflicts, particularly Korea and Vietnam, the front line would be everywhere as well. There now was no place to hide.
Over 460 military personnel won Medals of Honor during World War II, more than half posthumously. Here are three of those stories:
Lt. James E. Robinson
Being an artillery observer in World War II was one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States Army. You traveled and bled with the infantry sometimes for weeks at a time. Casualties were high. In the last year of the war, an observer and his team of two enlisted were lucky if they lasted two weeks without getting hit. So it’s not surprising that many of the branch’s Medal of Honor winners came from the ranks of observers. A forward observer had to be a jack of all trades. Taking over an infantry platoon during a firefight was not uncommon and that’s exactly what Lieutenant James E. Robinson Jr. had to do on April 6, 1945.
At 26, Robinson was probably older than most of the men he was fighting alongside. Already married and with a daughter, he hoped to pursue a career as a commercial artist after the war. He had joined the National Guard in Texas right after high school in 1937. By 1940, he was in the regular Army, where he eventually was sent to officer candidate school and then on to Fort Sill for observer training. In 1943, he finally received a permanent assignment.
Robinson became an observer with Battery A, 861st Field Artillery, of the 63rd Infantry Division. Activated in June 1943, the 63rd Infantry Division was finally shipped overseas in late 1944. The Division’s infantry regiments arrived at Marseilles, France in December 1944. The rest of the division would follow within the month. Within weeks they were seeing heavy action, aiding the 44th ID and the 100th ID in stopping the Germans during Operation Nordwind, a vast German counterattack similar to the Ardennes Offensive to the north. Then it was on to Southern Germany and more bitter fighting.
In April 1945, Germany was on its last legs, but being on the front line was just as dangerous. Everyone knew the war was ending soon. Why did they keep fighting? Any death in war is tragic, only it’s made even more so when the end is in sight. The GIs had no choice. It was fight or die. And it seemed like the Germans were fighting to the last bullet.
On April 6, 1945, Robinson and his observer team were with A Company, 253rd Infantry near the town of Untergriesheim, Germany. The fighting was fierce. All day the Company struggled to make headway against furious machine gun fire and mortars. Robinson and his team tried to call in fire missions to keep the infantry moving forward. Casualties began to mount. By mid-afternoon, all the Company’s officers were either dead or wounded. It was becoming a slaughter. There were about 25 men left in the company, and many of those were few walking wounded. With no other options, Robinson took command. Holding onto to his rather heavy SCR 610 radio, the lifeline of any observer team, he led the small group towards the enemy positions. They managed to rout the Germans from their foxholes, losing more men in the process. The Lieutenant himself killed many at point-blank range with rifle and pistol fire.
Now with just 19 men remaining, he was ordered to move on to Kressbach, a neighboring town. It was heavily defended. The survivors later told Army investigators that Lt. Robinson went to each man encouraging them to keep moving forward, follow him and get into town as fast they could. As the lieutenant led the advance, a shell fragment tore into his neck. He fell to the ground, bleeding profusely. Despite the pain, he called in a fire mission on the town, telling the men to keep going. Kressbach was finally seized that night. Robinson miraculously walked 2 miles unassisted to an aid station. It was too late. Upon arrival, he collapsed and died. The Medal of Honor was presented to his widow, Vina and their daughter, Martha, on December 11, 1945.
Lt. Robinson is buried in Section T, Grave 98 at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, San Antonio. A buidling at Fort Sill, OK is named in his honor.
On April 8, 1945, Sgt. John Crews of the 253rd IR won the Division's only other Medal of Honor. He survived the war, passing away in 1999.
Lt. John R. Fox
If you’re denied the full rights of other citizens within your own country, would you volunteer to fight for it? That’s exactly what many African American men and women did during World War II. The actions of Lt. John R. Fox of the 92nd Infantry Division give proof to the belief that soldiers don’t fight for mom and apple pie as much as they fight for each other.
Fox was a member of the 366th Infantry Regiment of the famed 92nd Infantry Division. The men of the division were also known as the "Buffalo Soldiers" because of their lineage going back to the western frontier. They had also fought in the Spanish American War and World War I. The coming of World War II didn’t really change anything. Jim Crow was still in full effect and the U.S. Army remained segregated. The 92nd was just one of two full equipped black infantry divisions within the Army (the other being the 93rd). By war’s end there would be many independent black units (cavalry, armored, engineering and artillery battalions), along with one parachute infantry regiment. And of course there were the famous Tuskegee Airmen. Many African Americans joined out of pride, others to escape dire situations. Some were highly educated and others were country boys who could hardly read. Either way, they were treated the same.
A Cincinnati native, Fox attended Wilberforce University, a historically black college in southern Ohio where he was also a member of the school’s ROTC program. Upon graduation in 1940, he became a second lieutenant. By the end of 1941, he had graduated from Fort Benning’s Rifle and Heavy Weapons Course. Then came assignment to the 92nd. During this time, Fox also married his wife Arlene and they had a daughter, Sandra.
Many of the Division’s officers were white. Some were not there by choice. Even the Division’s commander, General Ned Almond, did not like black troops. It was a strange situation and one that led to problems when they first entered combat. By the end of 1944, the Division began to show promise. The now seasoned veterans arrived in Italy throughout August and September 1944. By the end of the war, the Division had suffered almost 5,000 casualties. Ironically, the famous Nisei unit, 442nd Regimental combat team, another segregated unit, would also be attached to them.
Lt. Fox was an infantryman by branch, but an artilleryman by trade. Such an oddity came about during World War II because of the creation of the cannon company. Cannon companies were essentially small artillery units that were organic to all infantry regiments and under the direct control of the regimental commander. They even had their own observer teams. By 1944, the standard cannon company had three platoons with two 105 M3 howitzer along with a variety of other heavy small arms. The units were supposed to provide supplemental fire support for the regiment. Tactically, they never quite worked as intended, and were disbanded after the war, although the M3 continued in service for some time. The men of cannon companies many times found themselves fighting as regular rifleman or providing perimeter security.
Late on the night of December 25, 1944, in the town of Sommocolonia, Italy, Fox along with his observer team, were positioned on the second floor of a dilapidated stone house when the Germans began overrunning the town. Most of the infantry within the village had been forced to withdraw throughout day. Fox and his team volunteered to stay. The previous night, German soldiers had also penetrated the town dressed as civilians, then scurried to prearranged hiding places. At nightfall, the Germans commenced another heavy barrage in preparation for one final push. By midnight, Fox and his men were the only GIs left. He then called for defensive artillery fire to slow the enemy advance. As the Germans continued to press the attack towards the area that Lieutenant Fox occupied, he adjusted the artillery fire closer to his position. He was warned by the Fire Direction Center that the next adjustment would bring the deadly artillery right on top of his position. His answer was clear, “Fire it! There’s more of them than there are of us!” That was the last anyone heard from him or his crew. We will never know what went through the mind of Lt. Fox as he faced that agonizing decision to call a barrage down on himself and his comrades.
The Americans retook the town soon after and Fox’s body was found in the rubble. Surrounding him were the bodies of nearly a 100 Germans. His body was returned to the United States and buried at Colebrook Cemetery in Whitman, Massachusetts. His wife Arlene was a native of Brockton. It would take months for the Army to find the remains of many of their men. One of those with Fox was Private Alphonso Mosley of Camden, N.J. His body wasn’t found until the summer of 1945, when he was buried in the Florence-American Cemetery at Florence, Italy.
But as was the case with so many African American soldiers, it would be a long wait to get the recognition he deserved. In 1982, after a long review process, Fox was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. It was presented to his widow at a ceremony at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Mrs. Fox and her family kept up the fight through the next 15 years for even greater recognition. Finally, on January 13, 1997, Lt. Fox received his Medal of Honor along with several other members of the Division. Arlene Fox was on hand again. It was the culmination of a long struggle. Of the 7 men from the 92nd awarded the Medal that day, only one was living, Vernon Baker.
The citizens of Sommocolonia never forgot. They erected a statue after the war to nine soldiers. Eight of them were Italian, but there was one American, Lt. John R. Fox.
Recognition Was Slow
Sgt. Jose C. Calugas
The Japanese Invasion of The Philippines in December 1941 and the subsequent Battle of Bataan are generally regarded as one of the worst military disasters in American history. But American and Filipino forces held out until May 1942, three months longer than the Japanese expected, buying time for a vengeful American military that was reeling after Pearl Harbor. With every defeat, there are stories of raw courage and hope. Jose Calugas’ story is one of those.
Calugas was a member of the Philippine Scouts, part of the Philippine Department, one of only five regular divisions within the US Army throughout the 1930s. A native of Barrio Tagsing in IIoilo province, he joined the Army in 1930. He was trained at Fort Sill and other bases in the U.S until finally being reposted to the Philippines. By 1941, now Sergeant Calugas was committed to a career in the Army, and was also a husband and father.
On January 6, 1942, American and Philippine forces were already in retreat. Calugas’ unit was covering the withdrawal of the 26th Cavalry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts and the 31st Infantry Regiment. He was working as a mess sergeant when he noticed that one of his unit's guns had been silenced, and its crew killed. The Japanese fire had gone from intermittent to unrelenting. Without orders, he ran the 1,000 yards across the shell-swept area to the gun position. Once there, he organized a squad of volunteers who returned Japanese artillery fire. The position remained under constant and heavy fire for the rest of the afternoon.
While Calugas and his squad maintained a steady fire on the enemy positions, other soldiers had time to dig in and defend the line. Once the fighting slowed, he just got up and went back to his mess duties.
For his actions on that day, he was recommended for the Medal of Honor. Before he could receive it, however, all American forces on Bataan surrendered to Japanese forces. Calugas, along with the rest of the 76,000 men were sent to Camp O’Donnell. After a year, he was released to perform forced labor for the Japanese. However, he secretly joined a guerrilla group and spent the rest of the war leading attacks against the occupation.
After the war, Calugas finally received his Medal of Honor, presented to him personally by General George Marshall. He stayed in the Army, eventually retiring as a Captain in 1957. His last posting had been at Fort Lewis, Washington, where he decided to settle. He obtained a college degree then went to work for Boeing. Mr. Calugas passed away in 1998.
These men set an example of self-sacrifice that continues today. May we never forget their actions.
Zaebecki, David T., American Artillery and the Medal of Honor