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This Day in History: The Battle of the Bulge & Sgt. Charles MacGillivary’s Medal of Honor

On this New Years’ Day in 1945, Americans fight the Battle of the Bulge in freezing temperatures. Would you believe the cold saved at least one life? Who would have thought that all the snow would turn out to be a blessing in disguise?

The 290th Infantry Regiment fights in fresh snowfall

Sergeant Charles MacGillivary lost his arm that day, but he survived the experience because he was able to use snow and ice to stop the bleeding. “If it had been summer, I’d be dead,” he later said.

He was one of the fortunate ones. The Battle of the Bulge would become one of the most lethal battles in American history, with as many as 19,000 Americans killed.

On January 1, MacGillivary was near Woefling, France. He and his men were pinned down by a German attack force, trapped in a snowy forest. The men had been talking about surrender.

MacGillivary didn’t think too much of that! “The Germans were promising Americans Christmas dinner if they surrendered,” he later told a Boston Globe reporter, “but they’d just march the Americans with hands over their heads in front of a tank and shoot them.”

When the company commander was killed, MacGillivary was left in charge. “As the head of my company, I had a duty to do something,” he decided.

“Something” turned out to be single-handed attacks on German machine gun nests. His Medal citation describes his “lone combat patrol,” in which he carefully worked his way through the woods and the snow, stalking the enemy with his submachine gun and some grenades. He was “creeping, crawling, and rushing from tree to tree.” When his submachine gun ran out of ammunition, he found another on the battlefield and continued on.

It was only when he reached the last German nest that he ran into trouble. A wounded German fired one nearly fatal shot at MacGillivary, hitting his left side. MacGillivary returned fire, killing the German, but when he looked down, his arm was gone.

“When you get hit by a machine gun,” he later said, “it’s like somebody put a hot poker in you. I stuck the stump of my arm into the snow, but the warm blood melted the snow. I kept scooping snow around it till my hand was freezing. I figured I was dying. When they rescued me, my arm had a cake of bloody ice frozen around it, sealing the wound. If it had been summer, I’d be dead.”

MacGillivary would later receive the Medal of Honor for his actions. The award made him the second Canadian-born man to receive the Medal during World War II. He’d been a native Canadian, but he’d moved to Boston in the 1930s. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he decided to join the Army. He also become an American citizen.

What did MacGillivary think of his own Medal? “All I was doing was fighting for my life,” MacGillivary said “The guys were freezing to death and my main ambition was to get us out of there.” Humble, as so many Medal recipients are. And he continued to express these types of sentiments on another occasion.

“[T]he real hero is the person who lays down his life,” he concluded. “There’s no medal for that.”

Primary Sources:

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