This Day in History: Medal of Honor recipients at the Battle of Anzio

During this week in 1944, Allied forces begin an effort that would ultimately bring the World War II Battle of Anzio to an end. That battle to help free Italy from the Axis powers had been ongoing for months! Twenty-two Americans would ultimately receive a Medal of Honor for their contributions to the effort.

But a whopping seven of those Medals were awarded for actions that occurred on a single day—May 23, 1944.

So much bravery on display in a single day!

Second Lt. Van Barfoot captured 17 Germans—they’d been manning machinegun nests. As if that were not enough, he secured a bazooka and confronted three advancing German tanks! He disabled the first and killed some of its crew.

Second Lt. Ernest Dervishian feigned death when he found himself pinned down by machineguns. He waited for a lull in the fire, then successfully attacked a machinegun position with a hand grenade and carbine fire. Later, he ordered his men to withdraw, but then singlehandedly attacked another German machine gun nest.

Private First Class John Dutko made a one-man assault on two different German machinegun nests. He had hand grenades, but he was also firing a Browning automatic rifle from the hip. He gave his life in an assault on a third machinegun nest. “He killed both members of its crew with a single burst from his Browning automatic rifle,” his citation notes, “continued toward the gun and died, his body falling across the dead German crew.”

Second Lt. Thomas Fowler made a personal reconnaissance of a minefield, then led infantry through the field, one squad at a time. He found and dragged enemy infantrymen out of their foxholes. When an Allied tank was set afire, he ran toward it and worked to save the wounded crew.

Staff Sergeant George Hall’s company was pinned down by 3 enemy machineguns and sniper fire from the enemy. Hall volunteered to deal with the problem. He crawled down a furrow to get to the first machinegun nest. Then he took out the second nest after a “deadly exchange of grenades.” He lost his leg as he attempted to take out the third nest, but he’d done enough to help his company break free.

Private First Class Patrick Kessler watched as a “hail of machinegun fire” killed five of his comrades, but then decided to plunge in anyway. He formed an assault group, enabling him to attack the machinegun nest as three men covered him. His effort was successful—but he was also just getting started! Machinegun fire was concentrated at him. He had to crawl through a minefield. He was in a fire fight with two snipers. Nevertheless, when all was said and done, Kessler had personally captured more than a dozen Germans.

Finally, Private First Class Henry Schauer repeatedly faced German snipers, placing himself in exposed positions in order to do it. At one point Schauer was standing, upright, a mere 80 yards from an enemy machinegun nest, even as tank shells burst within 20 yards of his position.

But for men like these, the Battle of Anzio couldn’t have been won. The Allied effort at Anzio ended in victory less than two weeks after these heroic efforts: Allied forces marched into Rome on June 4. But the Allied victory did far more than just lay the groundwork to free Italy. It also engaged a few German corps that would otherwise have been in Normandy, France.

You may recall that the critical Allied landing at Normandy occurred mere days later, on June 6.

But for the bravery of these and other Americans at Anzio, would the invasion of Normandy have been so successful?