The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest, most prestigious decoration awarded to those servicemen and women for gallantry and bravery in combat above and beyond the call of duty. Fewer than 4,000 individuals of the millions who have served between its inception in 1863 and today have received it, and a great many of them received it posthumously.
This is one of their many stories. All information provided in this article is provided by Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty by Peter Collier.
James Hendrix was a private when he earned his Medal of Honor. Drafted in 1944 at the age of 18, the young man had spent his formative years working for his sharecropping father – he didn’t advance beyond a third-grade education before quitting school.
Hendrix became a member of an armored infantry battalion – he was a bazooka man whose primary job was to knock enemy armor out of the fight. During the first days of the invasion of Normandy, he and his unit were anchored, waiting for a beachhead to be secured.
Once that was accomplished, Hendrix joined General George Patton’s Third Army as it pushed through France and into Belgium in the hopes of keeping allied momentum alive straight through to Germany.
As we all know, however, that was not to be. The German Siegfried Line, while not quite as famous as the French Maginot Line defeated by the Germans at the outset of the war for France, was far more effective.
With the invasion stalled, for the time being, Nazi Germany saw its moment to counterattack and possibly bring the Americans to the negotiation table for a more attractive peace deal – it sounds far-fetched, but at the time American logistics were severely stretched, and the seizing of a crucial allied port (Antwerp) would have been a major blow to allied efforts.
It was Germany putting all of its chips into the kitty, and it was where Hendrix would cement himself into American military history.
For the first time, anyway.
Hendrix was a part of General Patton’s relief force for the encircled American troops in and around Bastogne. Near the town of Assenois, just a few miles away, Patton’s drive stalled, much to the general’s consternation.
Hendrix dismounted his half-track with his bazooka, to see what was the matter, only to find that a German Tiger tank was blocking the road.
No problem for Hendrix.
He ran into a building flanking the tank and fired on its turret from a second-story window, disabling it.
That’d be a pretty good day in and of itself, but Hendrix’s tour de force was only just beginning.
Sure enough, Hendrix’s actions were able to get the column moving again, but only for a short time. The column fell under a massive artillery barrage, which would cost Hendrix his bazooka. The half-track he was riding in was hit, and Hendrix dashed out of it with nothing but a rifle.
As he was sprinting to find cover, he found two 88 mm field guns set up to block the American advance. He moved on them – largely to avoid more artillery fire, and ended up behind their position. He waited for them to pause their firing, then came out roaring, demanding they surrender to him. Of the fourteen present, thirteen surrendered. The last Hendrix was forced to kill.
His day is now halfway done.
He returned to his column, only to come under fire again. With the help of an American tank, Hendrix took out two machine-gun emplacements. On the way back, he found an American half-track on fire. Despite exploding ammunition within the vehicle and sniper fire without, he dragged the burning American soldier he could rescue out to safety.
Patton himself recommended Hendrix for the Medal of Honor, which he received on August 23, 1945, from President Harry Truman.
That’s not the last time that Truman and Hendrix would meet, either.
Hendrix figured, rightly, that he made for a pretty good soldier, and opted to spend a career in the military. A few years after his famous exploits, he was jumping to qualify for the United States Airborne when his parachute failed. He fell better than a thousand feet, inexplicably without serious injury.
Nearly as unlikely, President Truman was there, reviewing the troops. He was told about the incident and naturally wanted to see the man who fell a thousand feet and walked it off.
“That was the second miracle of this world,” the president reportedly told Hendrix.
Hendrix asked what the first was.
“That I ever got elected president.”
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