In a cartoon by the legendary Bill Mauldin, a spotless MP explains the ribbons on his chest to three scruffy GIs: “Th’ yellow one is fer national defense, th’ red one wid white stripes is fer very good conduct, and th’ real purty one wid all th’ colors is fer bein’ in this theater of operations….” The cartoon illustrates the GIs’ perceived indifference to medals and decorations.
This disdain may be because soldiers in combat routinely witnessed acts of heroism every day, most of which went unrecorded and unrecognized by higher authority. For those who survived, it became easier to feign disinterest than to fret over the inequities of a military bureaucracy that awarded medals haphazardly. If these tangible symbols of recognition meant nothing, however, then armies would have abandoned them years ago. As James Jones says in The Thin Red Line, “Everyone pretended medals didn’t mean anything, but everyone who got one was secretly proud.”
Recognition of bravery in the form of medals and decorations does matter. A veteran of campaigns in Poland and France, panzer officer Rolf Hertenstein remembers the “chest pains” he suffered until he was finally awarded the Iron Cross (story, P. 34).
It also matters to those of us who read about battles fought long ago. We are all moved by accounts of the deeds of men like Charles DeGlopper, Ernest Childers, Robert E. Bush and other Medal of Honor recipients and incensed by others—such as Llewellyn Chilson (story, P. 26) or Harrison Summers—not receiving their due.
On the morning of June 6, 1944, Summers’ commanding officer, Lt. Col. Patrick Cassidy, was running out of time. His 1st Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, had yet to achieve its D-Day objectives that included securing defensive positions north of Causeway 4, which led off of Utah Beach, and eliminating a German barracks complex in the village of les Meziers, where crews for a battery of 122mm guns at nearby St. Martin de Vareville were quartered.
Fortunately, the guns had been removed by the Germans before they could interfere with the landings, but the barracks full of Germans still remained. The buildings were in a series of stout Norman farm structures that had been labeled on Allied invasion maps as the WXYZ complex. After sending the bulk of his men to secure positions defending the extreme northern flank of the invasion, Cassidy had almost nothing left to use against the barracks, which could contain upwards of 100 men.
Lacking alternatives, the battalion commander ordered Staff Sgt. Summers to take 15 other men who had gathered around the headquarters and kill or drive off the Germans in the barracks. Summers, a prewar Regular from West Virginia who did not know any of the men, simply said “Yes, sir” and quickly moved out.
It was 9 a.m. by the time Summers’ group reached WXYZ. After a quick look around, he turned to his small party and noticed that none of the troopers appeared very eager to follow him into battle.
In the best tradition of the Infantry School, Summers rose up and dashed toward the first building in the complex alone, hoping the others would follow. Kicking in the door, he shot down four Germans with his Thompson submachine gun while the rest fled. By the time he attacked a third building, Summers began to receive support from the heavy machine gun of Private William Burt. Before attacking a fifth building, an unidentified officer from the 82nd Airborne Division joined Summers, but he was quickly killed. Again alone, the sergeant cleared the building, killing several more Germans.
Seeing the sergeant’s one-man charge, Private John Camien came up to him and asked why he was doing all this. “They don’t seem to want to fight,” Summers said of the rest of his men, “and I can’t make them. So I’ve got to finish it.” At this, Camien joined the sergeant and together they cleared out the remainder of the Germans, only receiving additional help at the very end.
Summers’ rampage lasted for five hours, and by the time it was over he had personally killed nearly three dozen Germans and had a hand in the death or imprisonment of dozens more. When the firing finally ceased, a shaken Summers sat down for a cigarette. Asked how he felt, the sergeant just said: “Not very good. It was all kind of crazy. I’m sure I’d never do anything like that again.”
Summers’ heroic act had resulted in the destruction of a large German unit that could have posed a significant threat to the fragile Allied beachhead. When he learned of the sergeant’s bravery, no less a luminary than S.L.A. Marshall, the chief Army historian for the European Theater of Operations, pushed for him to receive the Medal of Honor. Instead, Summers was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He later received a battlefield commission and after the war returned to Rivesville, W.Va., where he went to work in the mines.
Marshall continued to advocate for Summers to receive the Medal of Honor and described his attack in Night Drop, the classic account of the American airborne landings in Normandy. Others tried as well. One of the theories later given for why none of these efforts paid off is that Cassidy simply could not believe that one man had accomplished so much.
Summers never talked about what happened that morning. “He was just quiet,” his son remembered. “He didn’t really want to talk about it. That was in the past.” He was so quiet that by the time he retired most of his coworkers did not even know he had served in the war at all. Following his death from lung cancer in 1983, the man dubbed by historian Stephen E. Ambrose as the “Sergeant York of World War II” was quietly laid to rest at a small cemetery in Marion County, W.Va.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.