May 31 marks the observance of Memorial Day in the United States, a day set aside to recognize the contributions of military men and women who died in battle, as well as to give thanks to those veterans still living. On May 29, President Bush pays tribute to the millions of Americans who served in World War II by dedicating a memorial in Washington. VOA's Melinda Smith profiles one World War II veteran, whose courage in battle almost 60 years ago earned him America's highest honor.
The time was December 1944. The United States and its allies were winning the war in Europe. But in a last desperate struggle, the German army launched an offensive in the Ardennes region of Belgium by driving a wedge into American lines. In some of the most savage fighting of the war, the Battle of the Bulge got under way.
"When the Germans hit, it completely took us by surprise and small groups of soldiers occupied key areas of the battlefield, key intersections, some towns," said Raymond Millen, a military historian. "And they did this without any notification or authority. They just knew that they had to do something to stop the Germans."
Using 50-caliber machine guns, 30 American soldiers prepared to defend the small Belgian town of Malmedy. It looked hopeless, as the Germans moved to encircle it.
"Malmedy forms a shoulder, the northern shoulder of the Battle of the Bulge," Mr. Millen said. "The Germans were attempting to turn northward around the Malmedy area, so it was crucial that the Americans held the shoulder."
The fighting in Malmedy went on for three weeks. "We were guarding a bridge, a very vital bridge," said Francis Currey, now almost 80 years old. He was a 19-year-old sergeant in the American infantry at Malmedy. He says senior officers had told him one squad of men would be enough to defend the position.
"About four o'clock the next morning, here come the German tanks almost bumper to bumper, an armored column," he recounted. "One of them pulled right up to our position, and I had a Browning automatic rifle at the time, and the officer leading the column was up in the turret, and I fired at him, buttoned him up, and the others scattered."
All day long, Sergeant Currey and his small band of men held off the Germans. "We withdrew to this factory. It had a lot of windows in it, and we were firing from a window. 'Move, fire, move, fire' And made them think that we were a lot more than we actually were," he said.
Under cover of darkness, Sergeant Currey and his men escaped in an abandoned jeep. "Now, visualize, five young men, the oldest 21-years-old, in the middle of Belgium, when it was dark. We couldn't use lights on the jeep. We were surrounded by Germans. That's youth!"
For his valor under fire, Sergeant Francis Currey received the Congressional Medal of Honor, America's highest military award.
Francis Currey will be one of the veterans present at the dedication of the World War II memorial in Washington this weekend. At that time, the nation will formally pay tribute to the 400,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and others who died in the conflict as well as the 16 million men and women who were in military service during that time.
Sergeant Currey knows this event will be the last hurrah for many of his old comrades. The public recognition elderly veterans are receiving now is late in coming. He is like many others of his generation who lived through the Depression era of the 1930's, survived military combat, and when the war was over in 1945, quietly came home and went about their lives.
That, he says, was the way they wanted it. "I can only say one thing. I hope that my country can be as proud of me as I am proud of this country."