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This Day in History: Dirk J. Vlug's one-man attack on enemy tanks

On this day in 1916, a hero is born. Like so many in his generation, Dirk J. Vlug would be called upon to fight evil half a globe away.

“We all told our friends and wives and sweethearts that we’d be back in a year. But we didn’t get back in a year. We didn’t get back for 4½ years,” he later told a reporter.

Vlug at his welcome home parade in Michigan

By December 15, 1944, Pfc. Vlug was serving with the 126th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Infantry Division in the Philippines. Our soldiers were guarding Ormoc Road on Leyte Island.

Suddenly, the American roadblock was attacked by a group of five enemy tanks. Just as suddenly, Vlug turned into a one-man army. Armed with a rocket launcher and six rounds of ammunition, he left his covered position and advanced towards the tanks.

How was he not hit? The machinegun fire directed at him, Vlug’s Medal citation would later say, was “intense.”

Vlug advanced to the first tank and destroyed it with a single round. Then he moved on to the second tank. The crew of that tank was ready, dismounting from their vehicle and coming toward him. But Vlug simply whipped out a pistol, shooting one of the enemy. As the survivors scrambled back into the tank, he took out the tank, too, using the rocket launcher that he still held.

By then, three more tanks were headed Vlug’s way.

“[H]e flanked the first and eliminated it,” Vlug’s Medal citation describes, “and then, despite a hail of enemy fire, pressed forward again to destroy another. With his last round of ammunition he struck the remaining vehicle, causing it to crash down a steep embankment.”

“Dirk Vlug torched five tanks with a bazooka,” the Detroit Free Press reported many years later, “walking alone up a trail in the Philippines while the Japanese blazed away. Then he came home to Grand Rapids and delivered mail.”

But isn’t that exactly what the Greatest Generation did? They exhibited amazing heroism on battlefields in Europe and the Pacific, then they came home to their regular lives.

In Vlug’s case, he went home to Grand Rapids, where he learned that he would receive the Medal of Honor. He was the first Medal recipient from Grand Rapids, and the city celebrated their hero with a huge public ceremony. The community had collected donations to help Vlug build and furnish a home for himself—and for his new bride.

Vlug joined the Michigan Army National Guard briefly, but received an honorable discharge in January 1951. He would spend the next nearly 26 years as a local postal carrier. Later, as a retiree, he and his wife hosted monthly picnics for other veterans.

Vlug passed away in 1996 at the age of 79 and would be remembered as “an intensely humble man who rarely spoke of his heroics.”

It’s a statement that could be made of so many Medal recipients, couldn’t it?

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