As we enter 2015, we’re going to do something new for our American Heroes series. We’re going to start taking an occasional look at various groups within different branches of the military, and I don’t mean only SF. We’re opening 2015 with a look at some American Heroes who have held a special place in my heart for more than a decade: Grunts.
They’re the sheepdogs, the wolves, the tip of the spear, the thing that goes not bump but bang in the night; they’re the Army infantry, and they’re a bunch of hard-charging badasses unlike any other. Over the years some of them have received special recognition – Audie Murphy comes to mind – but there are countless others who have risked life and limb, shed their blood, and, yes, lost their limbs, and their names are not widely known. I could name a few myself, but that risks both causing some embarrassment and creating a stream of text messages and phone calls, so I’ll settle for making a blanket statement: Grunts are awesome, and this nation and the military at large owes them a serious debt of gratitude. Here’s why.
Noli Me Tangere (Do Not Touch Me) – 3rd Infantry Regiment
The infantry is made up of some of the boldest fighters in the army. Grunts enter the fight teeth bared, locked and loaded, and ready to kick some serious enemy tail. And when the chips are down and the guns are empty, they don’t give up. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the story of Sgt. Henry Lincoln Johnson. This story takes us all the way back to World War I, yes, that’s how long the infantry has been full of badasses (well, longer than that, but I digress).
Johnson enlisted in 1917, and because he was black he was assigned to the all-black New York National Guard unit, the 15th NY Infantry. When his unit was activated it was renamed as the 369th Infantry Regiment, and it wasn’t long before the men in the unit became known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Of course, Johnson didn’t need to borrow the cool name of his regiment, because it didn’t take long for him to earn his very own nickname: Black Death. This is how he got it, and this gives you an idea what “do not touch me” really means.
On May 14, 1918, Johnson was put on guard duty with fellow 369th infantry soldier Private Needham Roberts. While the two men stood watch for encroaching Germans, with Johnson possibly hoping to mete out punishment in line with the nickname he was soon to earn, the objects of their watch appeared, and not just a few. No, it was a few dozen Germans that materialized that night, a platoon of roughly 30 soldiers. The Germans didn’t hesitate, immediately tossing a grenade at Johnson, but they must have sensed this Grunt was one tough you-know-what, because they followed that up with a shotgun blast to the chest. Meanwhile they put a couple rounds into Roberts, who understandably collapsed to the ground as expected for someone who’d just been shot at point-blank range. Repeatedly. Then the Germans probably made some rude parting remark to Johnson and proceeded to run off into the night with Roberts. Yes, this was more than a midnight attack, it was a kidnapping. And Johnson would have none of it.
Bleeding from multiple close-range shotgun wounds and suffering heaven knows how many lacerations from the shrapnel blast of the grenade, Johnson somehow got to his feet. Shouldering his rifle, he began firing at the retreating Germans, powered by some internal infantry fire. The Germans kept going – with Roberts – so now, now Johnson got mad. He left the guard post and began to run after them, still firing his rifle. Just imagine: you’re a German who’s just kidnapped a soldier right out of a guard post in front of the enemy’s base, you’ve point-blank-shotgunned the other guard, and that’s after you smacked him down with a grenade to the face, so you’re feeling confident about your getaway. But wait. That Grunt isn’t down for the count, no, he’s coming after you, and he looks pissed off.
As he ran, his rifle jammed, so he slung it over his shoulder – believe me, he wasn’t done with it yet – and began to throw grenades at them. Then he caught up to what was left of the German platoon and put his rifle to good use once again by using the stock to beat the crap out of the enemy. Now imagine how frustrated he was when the rifle, which had jammed, then broke over someone’s head. Now it really was useless, so he did what any Grunt would do. He got his bolo knife out. Remember, all the while the Germans are fighting back, so Johnson’s been shot more times than you probably think, and it’s going on – and on. After killing four Germans and wounding 24 others, Johnson apparently felt it was time to go, so he grabbed Private Roberts and dragged him back to their foxhole. Mission complete.
Henry Lincoln Johnson was shot 21 times. He was blasted by a grenade. And he saved the life of his fellow soldier. Recognizing his bravery, the French government awarded him the Croix de Guerre, their highest award for bravery; he was the first American soldier to receive it. Sadly, he did not receive the Purple Heart until after his death; then-President Bill Clinton awarded it to him in 1996. In 2003, the Distinguished Service Cross was presented to a man by the name of Herman Johnson, who was one of the Tuskegee Airmen, on his behalf; Herman was his son.
Johnson was a stellar example of the infantry’s fighting spirit. Even alone, at night, facing dozens of enemies, he fought back. He was wounded 21 times, and he fought. He saved the life of his brother soldier. And that is the spirit of the infantry: fearsome warriors even against mind-blowing odds. Do not touch me, indeed.
(He also brings to mind the 4th Infantry Division’s motto: “Steadfast and loyal.”)
“I’ll Try, Sir” 5th Infantry Regiment
If you, like some, have wondered why an infantry division would have a motto involving “try” instead of “do” perhaps it’s because you don’t fully understand what trying means in the infantry. Now, the actual story of this particular motto comes from James Miller, who famously uttered the phrase to his commander, Jacob Brown, when asked whether he and his men were able to take the British artillery, which was positioned on the high ground and ultimately dominating the battlefield. Miller said “I’ll try, sir” and proceeded to tear right through the enemy with a volley and what must have been one badass bayonet charge. Miller took the guns and held the enemy at bay until ordered to withdraw. His words stuck and became the 5th ID’s motto, and here to demonstrate the infantry’s idea of “try,” we have Grunt Lt. Col. Matt “The Ghost” Urban.
On June 14, 1944, then-Captain Urban was leading his men through the French countryside, which wasn’t terribly idyllic given that it was the height World War II. It was at Renouf where Urban and his men encountered some seriously heavy fire coming from a wide array of rifles, shotguns, and those pesky things called tanks. And at the very moment when Urban’s men may have logically seen their lives flashing before their eyes, Urban took that moment to prove the infantry’s idea of trying. Urban was going to “try” to beat back the enemy, and darned if he wasn’t going to do it pretty much single-handedly.
Arming himself with a bazooka, Urban began to methodically work closer to the source of danger – the tanks. This entire time he took heavy fire, and it was rather close-range, too. When he finally reached his panzers-of-death goal, he turned the bazooka on them and, fully exposing himself to the enemy, simply stepped out into the line of fire and blew away not one but both tanks. If that isn’t badass, we don’t know what is. Urban’s men certainly thought it was and, seeing their captain’s courage under enormous fire, they charged into the fray, blowing the enemy away and winning that particular skirmish. But the day wasn’t over yet.
Later the same day Urban was fighting in his usual scarily-tough way when he was shot in the leg – by a 37mm tank gun. Yes, really. Medics understandably advised he be evacuated but Urban was a captain and he outranked them, and he refused to leave his men. Urban then led his men into a solid defensive position for the night and hopefully got a little sleep before entering battle again at 0500. When he got back to the fight at 0500, he was shot again, this time so severely even he could not deny the need for real medical treatment. You can imagine how he argued and ordered the men to emulate his bazooka-blasting ways as he was carried off the battlefield, but away he went. But he wasn’t one to be kept down for long.
Medical care wasn’t quite up to par in 1944, and when a couple of weeks had passed and he was still in the hospital, Urban got annoyed. He was in the hospital, recovering, when he found out his unit had suffered severe losses at what is described as “the hedgerows of Normandy.” Urban knew he was needed, so he looked around, saw no one capable of stopping him, got up, got dressed, and left. Having no direct route to his unit, Urban simply hitchhiked back to their location at St. Lo, France. When he finally reached them things were, indeed, bad: two tanks had been destroyed and a third wasn’t going anywhere because it didn’t have anyone there to operate it. Being a man who knew all about the real meaning of trying, Urban found the lieutenant in charge of the tanks and came up with a plan of attack to break through the enemy forces that had them pinned down. Plan made, the lieutenant and a sergeant headed out to man the stalled tank. They were immediately cut down by enemy fire. Seeing this, Urban knew what must be done: he would do it himself.
It’s worth noting here that Urban’s leg was so badly wounded he couldn’t walk well and would, in fact, use a cane for some time. Urban charged headlong through a hail of incoming bullets and mounted the tank. When he got there, he didn’t hunker down where it was safe, he fully exposed himself to the enemy, standing up to man the machine gun. As the tank slowly advanced, Urban let loose with devastating fire from the tank-mounted machine gun, totally ignoring his injuries, which were not yet fully healed. It’s well documented that Urban’s bold actions galvanized the men to advance, and they did, moving forward to utterly decimate the enemy position.
There are more examples right along these lines of Urban’s phenomenal bravery and stunning can-do spirit, including the tale of his receiving a paralyzing neck wound and continuing to lead his men until they were at what he considered a secure enough point for him to go receive medical treatment. In the infantry, “try” is code for “kick ass and take names” and Matt Urban knew all about it, and so do the Grunts of today.
(And then there’s the 5th Infantry Division’s motto: “We will.”)
Grunts are soldiers who eschew human comforts to sleep on the ground with rocks for pillows and who willingly run towards the sound of gunfire when any reasonable person would run away. Some of the bravest, most trustworthy, gallant men I’ve known have been Grunts, and I am proud to call them my friends. Once out of the army they become truck drivers, they work at companies like Boeing, and they go about their lives, but that fire is ever-present. It may be temporarily banked, but it’s there, and it can be easily brought to full destructive, protective force, should it be needed. Because once a Grunt, always a Grunt. Whether they are 21 or 53, they will persevere, no matter the odds. They can be counted upon. You may never see their names on the six o’clock news or uttered by some Hollywood-famous person who, in my opinion, probably isn’t worthy to utter their name, anyway, and they do not seek fame. They serve. They are the men of the army infantry, they are Grunts, they are American Heroes, and we owe them our gratitude. Without Grunts, this nation would have fallen long ago. Remember that next time you enjoy your Starbucks latte or kick back and enjoy a lazy day off. These freedoms brought to you by our military; brought to you by Grunts.
Thank you, to the Grunts I know personally and those I have yet to meet. Keep up the fire.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.
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