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This Day in History: A “One Man Fortress” at the Battle of the Bulge

On this day in 1944, a hero engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor.  Robert E. Gerstung has been called a “One Man Fortress” for his actions on this day so long ago.

 

Presumably, no one expected the former gas station operator to be a military hero. Yet have you ever considered how blessed we are, as a nation, in this regard? Our history is replete with stories of patriotic Americans, like Gerstung, who left their normal civilian lives behind and jumped into action, simply because they were needed.

 

TSgt. Gerstung’s bravery came during World War II, just as the Battle of the Bulge was beginning. He’d been ordered with his heavy machine gun squad to support an attacking infantry company.

 

“It was an all-day affair,” Gerstung later explained. “We started a morning attack. It was about 4:30 or 5 o’clock. [The Germans] set up all kind of obstacles—tank traps, wire and everything else. We had to break through.”

 

The squad’s position, Gerstung’s Medal citation would later say, was “almost untenable” because of the “density of artillery and mortar fire concentrated upon it and the proximity of enemy troops who threw hand grenades into the emplacement.”

 

Before too long, Gerstung was the only one left. The rest of his crew had been wounded or killed.

 

Nevertheless, Gerstung held the position for 8 long hours. “You see everybody around you getting injured and killed and you think of protecting them,” he later explained. “It got me kinda mad.”

 

He ran out of ammunition at one point, but he wasn’t going to abandon his post. Instead, the determined tech sergeant dashed across open terrain, under enemy fire, until he reached a disabled tank and got more ammo.

 

At another point, his gun jammed. Again, Gerstung could have withdrawn, but he didn’t. To the contrary, he crawled 50 yards to another of his company’s machine guns.  Its crew had been killed, but now he took over. For hours, he covered the infantry until they were finally ordered back. Even then, he refused to leave himself. He remained with the gun, covering their retreat.

 

Only when the infantry had fully withdrawn did he pick up the heavy machine gun and loop an ammo belt across his shoulder. He was finally retreating, intermittently firing as he left. “I was almost out of ammunition,” he later chuckled, “and I didn’t want to stay up there throwing stone.”

 

Gerstung was 100 yards from safety when he was struck in the leg. “[W]ith a supreme effort,” his citation concludes, “he crawled the remaining distance, dragging along the gun which had served him and his comrades so well.”

 

The heroic tech sergeant didn’t think he’d done anything special, of course. “I just got stuck out there with a machinegun,” he shrugged. “So I came back a hero.”

 

His country disagreed with him. Gerstung would receive the Medal of Honor less than a year later—and he would meet his wife in the process.  She was then working in D.C. and was sitting outside the White House when he first saw her.

 

Gerstung received his Medal from President Truman, but barely remembers it. “I was shaking so hard, I can’t even remember hearing what the president said to me,” he told a reporter who asked.

 

“We came back heroes, but mostly we were just scared,” he concluded. “But we knew what we were fighting about. We knew we were fighting for America.”

 

Amen. God bless this great country of ours!

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Primary Sources:

  • 2 G.I.s to Get Honor Medal; Saved Outfits Under Nazi Fire (St. Louis Star & Times; Aug. 9, 1945) (p. 9)

  • Congressional Medal of Honor Awarded to Camp Polk Soldier for Holding off German Attack (New Iberia Enterprise; Aug. 10, 1945) (p. 6)

  • Medal of Honor citation (Robert E. Gerstung; WWII)

  • Medal of Honor Feats Recalled (Chicago Tribune; May 30, 1967) (p. 1)

  • Modest Heroes (Council Bluffs [Iowa] Nonpareil; Aug. 29, 1945) (p. 4)

  • Roger Simon, Memories of War Vivid for Them (St. Louis-Post Dispatch; Aug. 11, 1978) (p. 13D)

  • Robert Hargis & Starr Sinton, World War II Medal of Honor Recipients (1) Navy & USMC (2003)

  • This Man Qualified for Medal of Honor (Taylorville Daily Breeze Courier; March 3, 1965) (p. 16)

  • Two Soldiers Arrive to Receive Honor Medals from Truman (Evening Star; Aug. 8, 1945) (p. A-4)

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