On this day in 1945, a soldier is presented with a Medal of Honor. Paul J. Wiedorfer had charged through snow and ice on Christmas Day during the Battle of the Bulge. It should have been a suicidal run, but he’d survived his fearless charge relatively unscathed.
Unfortunately, serious wounds came several weeks later, during a different conflict. Wiedorfer learned that he was to receive the Medal of Honor as he recuperated in a hospital. “Hey, Paul,” a fellow patient asked as he browsed through a military magazine, “what’s your last name?” Upon hearing Wiedorfer’s response, he bellowed his congratulations: “Hell, you got the Medal of Honor, man!”
By then, Wiedorfer had been promoted to Staff Sergeant, but he was a Private when he went into combat on that Christmas Day in 1944. The Battle of the Bulge had just begun, and Wiedorfer’s company had been dispatched to assist American troops in Bastogne, Belgium. Trouble came when Wiedorfer’s platoon tried to cross a clearing not too far from Bastogne, near Chaumont. Enemy combatants were entrenched in two positions at the edge of the clearing, and they began pelting our soldiers with heavy machinegun fire.
Wiedorfer’s platoon took cover behind a ridge, but they were trapped. Not only were they being shot at, but the clearing was difficult to cross because it was covered by fresh snow and ice. “Nobody could move,” Wiedorfer later said.
Well, no one could move until Wiedorfer decided to act. “Suddenly something popped into my mind,” he later reported. “Something had to be done, and someone had to do it. And I just did it. I can’t tell you why.”
As Wiedorfer ran through the field, he slipped and fell. “Maybe that even saved me,” he mused. “Maybe. Because the machine gun started firing at me. I could see it. So I got up again, and I knew I had to still go about 15, 20, 30 more yards before I could lob the grenade—because I had a grenade out already.”
Wiedorfer reached the first enemy position and tossed in his grenade. “I heard a big boom,” he described, “and I immediately jumped up and followed the grenade right into the hole.” He killed the three Germans who were still there, then whirled to his right toward a second enemy position. He took that one out, too. In that second emplacement, one German was wounded and the other 6 surrendered.
The stunning act of bravery freed up Wiedorfer’s platoon, which came out from behind its ridge. Later, when both the platoon leader and sergeant were wounded, Wiedorfer took command of the platoon, leading it as the mission was completed successfully.
The young Private had survived his daring charge, but he would be wounded several weeks later. He would spend the greater part of three years in various hospitals, recovering from his injuries. In fact, he received his Medal from a Brigadier General who came to the hospital while he was still recuperating. The ceremony was a grand affair. The young Medal recipient was surrounded by hundreds of officers, nurses—even a full military band.
What a crazy scene that must have been!
Wiedorfer ultimately went home, where he and his wife raised four children. He passed away at age 90 in Baltimore.
Rest in peace, Sir.
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Daniel E. Slotnik, Paul J. Wiedorfer, Hero of the Battle of the Bulge, Dies at 90 (NY Times; May 30, 2011)
Frederick N. Rasmussen, Paul J. Wiedorfer dies at 90; World War II Soldier earned Medal of Honor (LA Times; May 31, 2011)
Medal of Honor citation (Paul J. Wiedorfer; WWII)
Medal of Honor oral histories (Paul J. Wiedorfer; WWII)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)
T. Rees Shapiro, Paul J. Wiedorfer, WWII Medal of Honor recipient, dies at 89 (Wash. Post; May 26, 2011)