Washington: In the early hours of September 7, 1944, Robert Maxwell, an Army communications specialist, made a split-second decision that was virtually certain to bring his death.
Technician 5th Grade Maxwell and a few other GIs were on observation duty outside their battalion headquarters near the city of Besancon in eastern France when German soldiers got within yards of their outpost and opened fire.
The Germans blasted away with automatic weapons and even anti-aircraft guns, seeking to destroy the stone house where the battalion commanders were stationed. The GIs on sentry duty were armed only with .45-calibre automatic pistols, but they fired back.
And then a grenade was hurled over the fence in front of the house’s courtyard and landed beside Maxwell. Using an Army blanket for protection, he fell on the grenade.
“I could hear it fall right near my feet,” Maxwell told the cable TV station COTV of Bend, Oregon, long afterward. “I didn’t know for sure where it was. This was between 1 and 2 in the morning. I groped to find it and throw it back, but I knew it was too late to do that. I was already crouched down, but I did have my blanket, shoved it down on my chest and dropped where I was.”
The grenade exploded, knocking him unconscious, tearing away part of one foot and peppering his head and left arm with shrapnel. Second World War was over for Maxwell, but he received the Medal of Honour. It cited him for inspiring his fellow GIs to join with him in a firefight that delayed the German onslaught and then, having “unhesitatingly hurled himself squarely upon” the grenade, “using his blanket and his unprotected body to absorb the full force of the explosion”.
The citation called it an “act of instantaneous heroism” that “permanently maimed” him but “saved the lives of his comrades”.
When Maxwell died Saturday in Bend at 98, he was the oldest surviving recipient of the medal, the military’s highest award for valour.
His death, which was announced by the Congressional Medal of Honour Society, leaves three veterans who received the medal for valour in Second World War still alive.
Robert Dale Maxwell was born October 26, 1920, in Boise, Idaho. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade to help his family run a farm in western Kansas during the Depression.
He entered the Army in July 1940 and joined the 3rd Infantry Division. He was a “wire man”, tasked with stringing telephone lines between his battalion headquarters and front-line troops wherever the fighting happened to be. It was formally a non-combatant role, but bullets and shells might be whizzing over his head while he was atop poles, trees or roofs going about his work.
He saw action in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, followed by Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France, in August 1944.
Cyril McColl, one of the GIs in the Besancon courtyard, told of Maxwell’s heroics in falling on that live grenade in an article in the June 1945 issue of Collier’s magazine.
“While the rest of us were blown off our feet, we got up without a scratch,” McColl remembered. “We started to pick him up and beat it, but he made us leave him and keep on fighting. Only when the battalion commander and his staff had moved out of the house would he let us hustle him back to an aid station.”
The besieged American commanders and enlisted men retreated that day. The Germans occupied the stone headquarters house, but US artillery obliterated it hours later.
It addition to the Medal of Honour, Maxwell received Silver Stars for his coolness under fire at Anzio, Italy, and at Besancon.
After the war, he settled in Oregon and taught automotive mechanics at community colleges.
His survivors include four daughters, Verda, Linda and Sharon Maxwell and Bonnie Spies, as well as many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His wife, Beatrice, died in 2015.
In October 2010, Maxwell visited a retirement community in Roanoke, Virginia, for a reunion with retired Maj. Gen. Lloyd Ramsey, who had been the battalion commander inside that stone house at Besancon. (Ramsey died in 2016 at 97.)
“You saved my life,” Ramsey told Maxwell, The Roanoke Times reported. “I’d like to say thank you a million times for all you did for us. You’re a true soldier.”
But Maxwell told COTV: “It’s not the case I was brave or a hero. I just did what the only alternative was. There was nothing else to do.”