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This Day in History: Robert E. Laws's Medal of Honor

On this New Year’s Day in 1990, a World War II hero passes away.  Robert E. Laws took on the enemy single-handedly, but later couldn’t remember what he’d done. When told that he would receive a Medal of Honor for his bravery, he didn’t believe it at first.


“I’ll believe this when it’s put around my neck,” he laughed.


The former metal worker had enlisted as a buck private, but he worked his way up through the ranks. By January 1945, he was a staff sergeant serving in the Pacific.  He didn’t like how he’d gotten that last promotion: His friend had been killed, and he’d been tapped to fill the spot.


“It’s a poor way to get a promotion,” he concluded.  

Nevertheless, he’d more than earn that promotion with his actions at the Battle of Luzon on January 12.  He’d been tasked with leading an assault squad against a fortified enemy position on a hill.


“The enemy force,” Laws’s Medal citation later explained, “estimated to be a reinforced infantry company, was well-supplied with machine guns, ammunition, grenades, and blocks of TNT, and could be attacked only across a narrow ridge 70 yards long.


It was a difficult task.  In the end, Laws set out to attack the enemy, on his own, while his men covered his advance. He was hurling grenades at the Japanese, but they were hurling grenades at him, too. Ultimately, one of his grenades found its mark and destroyed the enemy pillbox.


Yet there was still more of the enemy, and Laws wasn’t done. He was soon leading an attack against some entrenched riflemen nearby. He had more grenades by then, passed to him by some of his squad. He was wounded in the arms, legs, body, and head. His citation notes that “grenades and TNT charges” continued to explode near him.


But he just kept going.


At about this time, three Japanese charged him with fixed bayonets. He took out the first two with a machine gun.  He engaged the third in hand-to-hand combat, eventually taking a long tumble down a hill with that Japanese combatant. When the two reached the base of the hill, the enemy soldier was dead.  Laws simply rose and scrambled back up the hill.


Laws can’t remember anything after “the grenade,” but one is left to wonder which of the grenades he meant?!


“I guess I was like a fighter who was out on his feet, but kept going,” he later concluded. “My buddies here at McGuire General keep asking me what I did, but shucks! I don’t remember anything that happened after that grenade explosion.”


He’d been badly wounded and learned of his Medal while he was still hospitalized. Not that he was impressed by such details. He shrugged, telling a reporter: “[I] guess I’ll have to wait until President Truman tells me [what I did.]”


Laws received his Medal with his family present, but he still didn’t think he’d done much. “[T]he boys who really deserve a lot of the credit are back there fighting,” he shrugged.


Another member of the Greatest Generation, “just doing his job.”  Rest in peace, soldier.


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Primary Sources:

  • Altoona Mailman Can’t Recall His Heroic Deeds (Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph; Aug. 12, 1959) (p. 18)

  • GI Is Mystified By High Honor (Charlotte Observer; Aug. 17, 1945) (p. 12)

  • Joseph E. Zimmer, The History of the 43rd Infantry Division, 1941-1945 (2005)

  • Laws Too Shy to Give Girl Friend’s Name: McGuire Patient Gets Congressional Medal (Richmond News Leader (Aug. 23, 1945) (p. 1)

  • Local Medal of Honor Winner Still Doesn’t Know Why (Altoona Tribune; Aug. 18, 1945) (p. 1)

  • McGuire Vet is Convinced He’ll Get Medal (Richmond News Leader (Aug. 18, 1945) (p. 6)

  • Medal of Honor citation (Robert Earl Laws, WWII)

  • Medal of Honor Hard to Come By, But 41 Here Have Filled The Bill (Pittsburgh Press; Dec. 12, 1965) (Sect. 2, P. 1)

  • Medal of Honor to be Presented Altoona Soldier (Harrisburg Telegraph; Aug. 17, 1945) (p. 2)

  • Sgt. Laws Receives Medal of Honor from President (Altoona Tribute; Aug. 24, 1945) (p. 1)



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