On this day in 1944, a U.S. soldier is killed during the Battle of Hürtgen Forest. He’d put his life on the line repeatedly, traversing minefields, withstanding machinegun fire, killing nearly two dozen of the enemy—and capturing even more.
Just before John W. Minick was killed, some of his fellow soldiers heard him yelling out to the Germans: “Come on out! Come on out and fight!”
Seconds later, they heard an explosion. Minick had stepped on a landmine.
How tragic to be killed right at the end of so many heroics? But how unbelievably brave to put one’s life on the line in the first place.
The Battle of Hürtgen Forest occurred in the wake of the landings at Normandy as Allied forces pursued the Germans across the Western Front. Hürtgen Forest was located close to the Belgium-German border. It was a pretty dense forest, and it had already been booby-trapped by the Germans. Americans couldn’t get their tanks in without first blasting a path through the woods. Complicating matters further, air cover couldn’t always see their targets. Snow further hindered the effort, hiding German fortifications and slowing down the Allied push.
One soldier would later describe what it was like to fight in the forest during those weeks: “It’s hell. Pure, unadulterated hell. That’s the only word for it. It’s hell.”
One major offensive during this multi-month battle was launched on November 21. It was to be led by the 121st Infantry Regiment, which had arrived in the area mere hours before the scheduled 9:00 a.m. attack.
“The woods were as thick as ever with antipersonnel mines,” historian Charles MacDonald explains, “with log bunkers bristling with automatic weapons, with barbed wire, and even more than ever with broken tree trunks and branches that obscured the soggy ground and turned any movement, even when not under enemy fire, into a test of endurance.”
Only one company would reach its objective that day. And it did so only because of Minick’s efforts and sacrifice.
The soldiers were soon confronted with “extensive minefields,” as described in Minick’s Medal citation. They were stuck between a rock and a hard spot! Should they go through the minefield? Or stay where they were and deal with incoming enemy fire? Minick jumped into action, leading four other men “through hazardous barbed wire and debris, finally making his way through the minefield.” But on the other side of that minefield, he and his men immediately came under fire. Minick moved his men into covered positions, then edged his way closer toward the enemy.
He killed two members of the enemy machine guncrew and captured three others. Moving still closer, he “encountered and engaged single-handedly an entire company killing 20 Germans and capturing 20,” according to his citation. His platoon was able to capture the rest of the group.
But Minick wasn’t done yet.
He turned and once again advanced forward, ahead of the rest of his company, crossing a minefield alone. Only then did he finally step on a mine; it instantly killed him.
He was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor for his heroic leadership that day.
Minick had given his life, but not until he’d successfully led his company to its objective. And perhaps any soldier would be glad to say that he’d gone down fighting, still daring the enemy to come out and face him?
Charles B. MacDonald, United States Army in WWII—Europe—The Siegfried Line (Kindle ed. 2013)
Edward G. Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945 (1995)
Gregory A. Daddis, Fighting in the Great Crusade: An 8th Infantry Artillery Officer in World War II (2002)
Medal of Honor citation (John W. Minick)