Share This Article

Captain Maurice Britt
U.S. Army
Medal of Honor, Distinguished
Service Cross, Silver Star,
Bronze Star Medal
September 1943–January 1944

World War II ended abruptly for Captain Maurice L. Britt Jr., at the Anzio beachhead on Jan. 24, 1944. The 3rd Infantry Division company commander was attempting to call in artillery fire on advancing German tanks when one Panzer fired a round into the stone farmhouse he was using as an observation post. In the blast, Britt lost his right arm from the elbow down, fractured a leg and three toes and eventually lost his right lung.

That brought Britt his third Purple Heart of the war. He already had earned a Silver Star and a Bronze Star Medal with V Device for valor. His superiors recommended Britt for the Distinguished Service Cross for an action that had unfolded just the day before, and a Medal of Honor recommendation was working its way through the system for an action two months before. When his awards caught up with him, Britt became the first GI to earn the four highest American decorations for valor under fire.

From 1937 to 1941, Britt attended the University of Arkansas on an athletic scholarship for basketball and football and became an All-American on the gridiron. He also completed the ROTC program and received an Army reserve commission along with his journalism degree. In 1941 he played as a rookie end for the Detroit Lions, whose star running back that year was future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron “Whizzer” White.

Mobilized in 1942, Britt was assigned as a platoon leader in Company L, 3rd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment. On Nov. 8, 1942, he landed in North Africa, near Casablanca, and helped secure Fort Blondin. On July 10, 1943, Britt and his company landed on Sicily and helped capture Palermo. On September 19, his unit landed on the Italian mainland at Salerno as part of a follow-on wave.

When his company commander was wounded and evacuated shortly after the landing, Britt assumed command of Company L. During the 3rd ID’s advance to the Volturno River, Britt led his company in the assault of the town of Acerno, earning the Silver Star and his first Purple Heart. In late October he earned the Bronze Star Medal for rescuing one of his wounded men under enemy fire during the assault of Monte San Nicola.

In the fight for control of the mountain approaches to Cassino, the 30th Infantry took Monte Rotundo on November 8 after two days of bitter fighting. The Germans immediately launched fierce counterattacks. Two days later Britt’s unit was down to only 55 effectives when about 100 Germans attacked his sector. In the ensuing fight, Britt took a bullet in the side and multiple grenade wounds to his face, chest and hands. Expending all his carbine ammunition and throwing 32 hand grenades, he killed five Germans, wounded many more and captured four. The enemy counterattack had failed. Still, Britt refused to go to the aid station for treatment until directly ordered to do so by his battalion commander. Even then he refused to be evacuated. For his actions that day, Britt was ultimately awarded the Medal of Honor, the British Military Cross and his second Purple Heart.

Britt made his fourth amphibious landing of the war at Anzio on Jan. 22, 1944. The following morning Britt led his company across the Mussolini Canal to secure a key road junction. During the daylong fight, Britt at one point purposely exposed himself to draw fire from and pinpoint a concealed German machine-gun position, then called in artillery and mortar fire to knock it out. As the fighting wore on, Britt directed fire on three more enemy machine guns, two personnel carriers and several mortar positions.

Britt lost his arm the following day and was evacuated. His combat wounds would plague him for the rest of his life. Medically discharged in late December 1944, he returned to Arkansas, serving as lieutenant governor in the late 1960s and as district director of the Small Business Administration from 1971 to 1985. On Nov. 26, 1995, one of America’s greatest soldiers died of heart failure at the age of 76.


Originally published in the November 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.