In honor of Veteran’s Day tomorrow and today being the 240th anniversary of the Marines, today I wanted to honor four American veterans from WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. They are Alvin York, Jack Lucas, Tibor Rubin, and John McCain. Throughout these four choices, I tried not to pick anyone too obvious, like American Sniper Chris Kyle or the guys of Band of Brothers, although I definitely admire both.
Welcome to Inspirational Tuesday! A while ago on Facebook, I posted the story of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who saved 6,000+ Jews during the Holocaust. Many of you commented you had never heard of him, and it got me thinking: You know the Adam Lanza’s, the evil people of the world. Yet often, for some weird reason, the good people often go overlooked. I decided to balance this out by showcasing a courageous and inspiring person. Feel free to comment your requests.
“Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love… true love never dies.” -Hub, Secondhand Lions
Sgt. Alvin York – WWI
Many may know Alvin York from the 1941 Oscar-winning picture Sergeant York. Born in a Tennessee log cabin in 1887, Alvin York was one of 11 children. Despite having a minimal education, he helped on the family farm, and knew how to hunt. When his father died in 1911, York, the eldest sibling to still live in the house, was forced to help his mother raise his younger siblings, and began working as a logger. To ease his troubles, he turned to alcohol and became involved in many bar fights. His mother urged him to stop, to no avail. It wasn’t until his friend Everett was beaten to death in a bar fight. York turned his life around, and joined the Church of Christ in Christian Union, a pacifist church with a strict moral code.
During an attack by his battalion to capture German positions, on October 8, 1918, York wrote in his diary:
The Germans got us, and they got us right smart. They just stopped us dead in our tracks. Their machine guns were up there on the heights overlooking us and well hidden, and we couldn’t tell for certain where the terrible heavy fire was coming from … And I’m telling you they were shooting straight. Our boys just went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home. Our attack just faded out … And there we were, lying down, about halfway across [the valley] and those German machine guns and big shells getting us hard.
And those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush… As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting… All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.
York’s unit was forced to attack through a triangular valley and quickly came under German machine gun fire on several sides from the adjacent hills. This stalled the attack as the Americans began taking heavy casualties. In an effort to eliminate the machine guns, 17 men led by Sergeant Bernard Early, including York, were ordered to work around into the German rear. Taking advantage of the brush and hilly nature of the terrain, these troops succeeded in slipping behind the German lines and advanced up one of the hills opposite the American advance.
In doing so, they overran and captured a German headquarters area and secured a large number of prisoners including a major. While Early’s men began securing the prisoners, the German machine gunners up the slope turned several of their guns and opened fire on the Americans. This killed six and wounded three, including Early. This left York in command of the remaining seven men. With his men behind cover guarding the prisoners, York moved to deal with the machine guns. Beginning in a prone position, he utilized the shooting skills he had honed as a boy.
Picking off the German gunners, York was able to move to a standing position as he evaded enemy fire. During the course of the fight, six German soldiers emerged from their trenches and charged at York with bayonets. Running low on rifle ammunition, he drew his pistol and dropped all six before they reached him. Switching back to his rifle, he returned to sniping at the German machine guns. Believing he had killed around 20 Germans, and not wishing to kill more than necessary, he began calling for them to them to surrender.
Jack Lucas – WWII
What gave him away? A letter he wrote to his 15 year-old girlfriend confessing his real age. Although his commanders threatened to send him home, Lucas smugly replied he would simply enlist in the Army, and give the Army the benefit of the “good Marine training” he had received. His commanders reluctantly agreed. He was stuck driving a truck in Hawaii; a job he loathed.
Tired of his job, one day Lucas decided to stow away on a ship bound for the Pacific Ocean; to fight the Japanese. He knew after two weeks he would be labeled a deserter, and there would be a reward for his capture. However, he soon became nervous what would happen to him if he were caught, and decided to turn himself in about halfway through the journey. The colonel was sympathetic, and as Lucas had just turned 17, he decided to let him fight.
The day after the invasion, Jack and his four-man rifle team stumbled across an enemy bunker. The group destroyed it, and quickly took cover in a nearby trench, where they were greeted with 11 Japanese soldiers. Lucas shot two of them before his rifle jammed. Before he could recover, he noticed two grenades roll into his trench. He describes what happened next:
A couple of grenades rolled into the trench. I hollered to my pals to get out and did a Superman dive at the grenades…I hollered to my pals to get out and did a Superman dive at the grenades. I wasn’t a Superman after I got hit. I let out one helluva scream when that thing went off.
Although only one grenade went off, the explosion sent Jack flipped over on his back and with numerous external and internal injuries. Jack survived, barely. He had to have 26 surgeries after the war, and was left with over 250 pieces of shrapnel in his body, including six pieces in his brain and two in his heart.
For his actions, Jack was awarded the Medal of Honor. At 17, Jack Lucas remains the youngest Marine to have received the title, and the youngest person to have received it since the American Civil War. (A 13 year old drummer boy is known for being the youngest person to receive it) Jack died of cancer in 2008, at the age of 80.
You can read more about him in his memoir, Indestructible, or Choosing Courage, a collection of Medal of Honor recipients for middle schoolers.
Tibor Rubin – Korean War
Tibor Rubin was born in Hungary in 1929 to a Jewish family. In 1943, as Germany began taking over Hungary, 13-year-old Rubin and his family were arrested and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Fourteen months later, as the war was less than a week from being over, American troops liberated the camp (May 1945), and Rubin vowed to return the favor by immigrating to the US and fighting in the US Army. In 1948, Rubin immigrated to the United States and later became an American citizen.
“I always wanted to become a citizen of the United States and when I became a citizen it was one of the happiest days in my life. I think about the United States and I am a lucky person to live here. When I came to America, it was the first time I was free. It was one of the reasons I joined the U.S. Army because I wanted to show my appreciation.”
As soon as he reached American soil, Rubin enlisted, only to be turned down after failing the English exam. In 1950, Tibor retook the test, passed, and was sent to the front lines of the Korean War.
As the war raged on, Rubin was severely wounded and captured by the Chinese, and he and several other American soldiers were imprisoned in a Chinese prison camp. Because he was Hungarian, an ally of China at the time, the Chinese offered Rubin special treatment and a chance to go back to his home country. Rubin laughed, proudly announcing that he was an American, and there was no way he would go back to his home country.
Instead, almost every day for a year and a half, Rubin broke out of the camp at night, stole food from enemy storehouses, and then broke back into the camp to share the food with his comrades. Gathering his experience in the Nazi concentration camps, Rubin knowingly risked torture or death if caught, and provided much moral support for his fellow prisoners. Rubin is credited with saving the lives of 40 American POWs. When asked why he risked his life to save so many, he credits the Americans who liberated him, as well as “mitzvahs” – good deeds in the Judaism. A fellow prisoner of war, Leo Cormier Jr., said:
“He shared the food evenly among the GIs. He also took care of us, nursed us, carried us to the latrine…, he did many good deeds, which he told us were mitzvahs in the Jewish tradition… he was a very religious Jew and helping his fellow men was the most important thing to him”
After the war, Rubin became an American citizen. He married a fellow Holocaust survivor, Yvonne, and together they raised two children in California. On September 23, 2005, Tibor Rubin was awarded the long-overdue Medal of Honor by George W. Bush.
John McCain – Vietnam War
John McCain spent 5½ years in captivity as a POW in North Vietnam. His first-person account of that harrowing ordeal was published in U.S. News in May 1973. Shot down in his Skyhawk dive bomber on Oct. 26, 1967, Navy flier McCain was taken prisoner with fractures in his right leg and both arms. He received minimal care and was kept in wretched conditions that he describes vividly in the U.S. Newsspecial report:
The date was Oct. 26, 1967. I was on my 23rd mission, flying right over the heart of Hanoi in a dive at about 4,500 feet, when a Russian missile the size of a telephone pole came up—the sky was full of them—and blew the right wing off my Skyhawk dive bomber. It went into an inverted, almost straight-down spin.
I pulled the ejection handle, and was knocked unconscious by the force of the ejection—the air speed was about 500 knots. I didn’t realize it at the moment, but I had broken my right leg around the knee, my right arm in three places, and my left arm. I regained consciousness just before I landed by parachute in a lake right in the corner of Hanoi, one they called the Western Lake. My helmet and my oxygen mask had been blown off.
I hit the water and sank to the bottom. I think the lake is about 15 feet deep, maybe 20. I kicked off the bottom. I did not feel any pain at the time, and was able to rise to the surface. I took a breath of air and started sinking again. Of course, I was wearing 50 pounds, at least, of equipment and gear. I went down and managed to kick up to the surface once more. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t use my right leg or my arm. I was in a dazed condition. I went up to the top again and sank back down. This time I couldn’t get back to the surface. I was wearing an inflatable life-preserver-type thing that looked like water wings. I reached down with my mouth and got the toggle between my teeth and inflated the preserver and finally floated to the top.
Some North Vietnamese swam out and pulled me to the side of the lake and immediately started stripping me, which is their standard procedure. Of course, this being in the center of town, a huge crowd of people gathered, and they were all hollering and screaming and cursing and spitting and kicking at me.
When they had most of my clothes off, I felt a twinge in my right knee. I sat up and looked at it, and my right foot was resting next to my left knee, just in a 90-degree position. I said, “My God–my leg!” That seemed to enrage them —I don’t know why. One of them slammed a rifle butt down on my shoulder, and smashed it pretty badly. Another stuck a bayonet in my foot. The mob was really getting up-tight.
You can continue reading his full story at US News.
I did a lot of research and learned many interesting facts for this post. For one, I learned a lot about the Medal of Honor. The Medal of Honor is America’s highest military decoration, and it has been awarded to over 3,400 soldiers. The youngest recipient was a 13 year-old drummer boy during the American Civil War. The second was 17 year-old Marine Jack Lucas, featured in this post. The only woman to have been awarded is Mary Edwards Walker, a civilian Union Army surgeon, also during the American Civil War. To read more about the Medal of Honor, the Army has a lot of information.
Additional Veteran’s Day Resources:
For mature teens and adults, I would recommend the classic Spielberg mini-series Band of Brothers. (It’s on Amazon Prime) Lone Survivor and American Sniper are both great films, although both rated R. (Lone Survivor has less violence/sex/profanity than American Sniper, though)
For younger children, the new family film Max is sweet. It’s inspired by the true story of a marine’s dog, and offers much discussion on our military.
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