On this day in 1944, a soldier rescues two of his comrades from a burning tank. Herschel “Pete” Briles would later receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery.
“Sgt. Briles,” President Harry Truman would say during the award ceremony. “I would far rather be the recipient of the Medal of Honor than president of the United States. You, sir, are truly an American hero.”
You won’t be surprised to hear that the young soldier responded humbly, as so many Medal recipients do.
“Mr. President, I am no hero,” Briles responded. “I only did what I had to do. The real heroes never made it home.”
Briles was right about the heroes that never made it home. But he was wrong about himself. Heroes run toward danger, knowing they may not make it out. And that’s exactly what Briles did—two days in a row.
On November 20, 1944, Briles was leading a platoon of tank destroyers near Scherpenseel, Germany, when the platoon came under heavy fire. The Germans scored a direct hit on one destroyer, setting the whole thing ablaze.
To Briles, it was simple. “When you see somebody in trouble, and you know they’re going to die, you help them,” he later told a reporter.
He left the safety of his own tank and raced over to the one that had been set afire. He lowered himself into the burning turret, rescuing two wounded crewmen who were still inside. Would you believe that he was suffering from a relapse of malaria while he accomplished this feat? “His skinny body was racked by chills and fits of violent trembling,” one historian recounts, “followed by hot waves that sent the blood rushing to his face.”
Yet Briles did what he had to do. Then he did it again the next day. Literally.
Once again, he saved two men from a burning tank. Once again, he went back to extinguish the fire and salvage the tank for the army.
That wasn’t his only feat that day. Briles had also driven his tank into an advancing group of German infantry. He was standing in the turret of his tank, spraying machine gun fire at the enemy. He singlehandedly convinced 55 Germans to surrender. Briles’s actions, according to his citation, “clear[ed] the way for a junction between American units which had been held up for 2 days.”
“I wasn’t near as great as they make it sound,” Briles later told a reporter.
Let’s just say that his country begged to differ with him. Briles was awarded the Medal of Honor less than a year later, in September 1945.
A Salute to Iowa Heroes (Des Moines Register; May 30, 2005) (p. 11A)
Charles Whiting, The Battle of Hurtgen Forest (2000)
Dennis Black, Lest we forget . . . Three Medal of Honor recipients lie in county (Newton Daily News; Nov. 9, 2007)
Medal of Honor citation (Herschel F. Briles; WWII)
Patrick Beach, Heroes’ Hope: No More Medals (Des Moines Register; Nov 11, 1990) (p.1)