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This Day in History: Ernest H. Dervishian

On this day in 1944, a hero engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Some might have thought Ernest H. Dervishian an unlikely military hero. After all, he’d chosen law school over medical school because he’d been unable to stand the sight of “gruesome things” during a tour of the Medical College of Virginia.

Nevertheless, Dervishian left his legal career behind and joined the U.S. Army during World War II. By May 1944, he was with Allied forces near Cisterna, Italy. They’d been bogged down ever since their amphibious landings at Anzio earlier that year.

On May 23, a particularly aggressive advance was being made in the face of enemy fire, and Dervishian was ahead of his company. He and four of his men stumbled upon some Germans hiding in dugouts near a railroad embankment.

Then-TSgt Dervishian didn’t hesitate. He ordered his men to cover him as he charged ahead. His carbine was blazing, and he was moving forward forcefully. He had soon forced 10 Germans into surrendering. His men came forward and captured 15 more. Nine additional Germans were seen trying to flee, but Dervishian chased those men down, too.

The prisoners were sent to the back as four more soldiers joined Dervishian’s group. The small group moved forward, entering a German vineyard. Just then, more German machine guns rained fire down upon them. Dervishian was slightly ahead of everyone else when the attack came.

He decided to play dead.

“I lay still for about 10 minutes,” he later told a journalist. “I was shaking so hard I thought it would give me away. Bullets sprayed alongside my arm so close that they made my sleeve flutter.”

Finally, there was a lull in the firing. Were the enemy reloading their weapons? Were they distracted by the sound of an American tank approaching? Either way, Dervishian took advantage of the lull, wielding a hand grenade and his carbine. He was on top of the machine gun nest, yelling a few words in German: “Hands up!” The four Germans inside the nest complied.

Dervishian ordered his men into the vineyard, but the enemy opened fire from a different direction. One of his men was killed and another wounded. Dervishian changed his order: His men should withdraw.

Naturally, Dervishian didn’t follow his own order. Instead, he jumped into the machine-gun nest he’d just captured and opened fire on the other German machine gun nest. When a third enemy nest opened fire, he began firing at them, too. Dervishian would say that he turned his gun “to spray lead all over the place. . . . I was in a hot spot.” Meanwhile, his Medal citation describes him “[s]imultaneously blazing away at the entrance to the dugout to prevent its occupants from firing and firing his machine gun at the other German nest.”

He soon forced five Germans in each position to surrender.

At this point, Dervishian had personally forced 33 Germans into surrendering, but the area hadn’t been cleared yet. He picked up an abandoned submachine gun and advanced against one last German nest in a nearby house. Six more Germans had soon surrendered to the determined sergeant.

From beginning to end, the conflict had taken 25 minutes. Dervishian obtained the surrender of 39 Germans. His men had taken 15 additional prisoners.

Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that Dervishian received a Medal of Honor for his bravery on this day so long ago, but Dervishian himself didn’t think he’d done anything special.

“Countless others performed acts equal to mine,” he shrugged. “They were not so lucky.”

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