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This Day in History: Robert D. Maxwell, conscientious objector turned hero

On this day in 1944, a hero throws himself on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers. Amazingly, Robert D. Maxwell would live to tell the tale. Indeed, when Maxwell passed away last year, he was the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient.

Perhaps Maxwell was an unlikely hero? His Quaker grandfather had been a huge influence on his life. “I envision myself as a conscientious objector,” he later told an interviewer, “but when Pearl Harbor happened and other people around me were going to war, I felt that it was not only my duty but my privilege to serve the country.”

Maxwell receives the Medal of Honor from Major General Clarence Danielson

Maxwell ended up in a non-combat position as a telephone wireman. It was his job to string communication lines for his battalion. Except the (allegedly) non-combat position put him in harm’s way more than once. During the Italian campaign, he worked a vital repair job for three hours, under fire. Shrapnel was tearing great gashes in his legs, but he just kept going.

He came under fire again during September 1944 as the Third Infantry Division advanced on the town of Besançon, France. Technician Fifth Grade Maxwell was working to string lines at a battalion observation post: The Americans were using a house with a large stone wall around it. Rifle companies were supposed to be guarding the right and left flanks of the post, but the Germans unfortunately broke though.

The observation post was attacked during the wee hours of the morning.

Maxwell held a non-combatant position, remember, so he was armed with only a .45 caliber pistol. Nevertheless, he held his own. “Maxwell’s courage was what held us together,” one of his fellow soldiers later reported. “The machine-gun fire was just clearing his head, but he sat there taking pot shots at everything that moved. Our wall was beginning to crumble, and I was thinking how nice it would be to get out of there, when a grenade came over the chicken wire, and hit the cement floor right at our feet.”

Maxwell’s first instinct was to throw it back. But the grenade was hard to find in the dark, and he realized he didn’t have time.

“[A]ll I could do was just grab my blanket, shove it up to my chest and drop on it,” he reported matter-of-factly.

The decision saved lives. “Bob made the conscious decision to throw himself upon a German grenade to save the lives of the men with him in his battalion’s forward command post,” one officer later described. “One of those men was his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Lloyd B. Ramsey. Had all the men in the command post been killed or wounded, the battalion’s attack may have been degraded as the chain of command was reestablished.”

Maxwell was knocked unconscious at first. When he woke up, he was alone. His fellow soldiers had evacuated, leaving him behind because they thought he was dead. Maxwell managed to drag himself toward the house where he found his platoon leader still preparing to leave. Together, the two managed to escape.

Maxwell would spends months in recovery before receiving the Medal of Honor in May 1945.

“It’s not the case that I was brave or a hero or anything like that,” Maxwell said of his Medal, “because I just did what the only alternative was at the time. And there was nothing else to do.”

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