On this day in 1944, a hero is awarded the Medal of Honor. Private Rodger Young wasn’t the type of guy who was “supposed” to be a military hero. After all, he was only 5’2” tall, 125 pounds. Complicating matters further, his eyesight and hearing had both been damaged while he was just a teenager.
He’d been playing basketball at the time. He was on his high school team, despite his short height, because he was athletic—and he hustled. It was enough to get him on the team.
Or, at least, it was until he took a hit to the head and wound up in the hospital.
Young had lost much of his hearing and sight, but perhaps he kept the big heart that let the short athlete play basketball in the first place? The young man joined the Ohio National Guard in January 1938, and he took that stamina into his life as soldier.
In late 1940, Young’s Guard unit was activated and sent to training. Years of hunting had made him a good marksman, despite his damaged sight. Young was soon made an instructor on the rifle range, and he even won marksmanship medals. He was promoted to sergeant, and he was a squad leader by the time his company left for the South Pacific.
They were to receive more advanced training in Fiji and the Solomon Islands. Unfortunately, all the gunfire at the firing range had aggravated Young’s hearing loss. He became worried that his hearing could endanger his men if he couldn’t hear enemy movements. He asked to be demoted back to private.
He wanted to serve, but he didn’t want to lead men into trouble.
His superior officers wanted to send him to a field hospital, but he begged to stay. He didn’t want to miss his division’s first combat when it landed in New Guinea. In the end, the Army let him stay at a reduced rank.
On July 31, 1943, Young was in New Guinea. His company had been ordered to move into a new position for the night, but it had become pinned down by a Japanese machine gun nest. Young was wounded, but he thought he’d spotted the location of the gun.
He was ordered to stop, but he began moving forward anyway. Did he simply fail to hear the order to retreat? His platoon leader gives an emphatic answer to the question.
“Some say Rodger, who couldn’t hear very well, didn’t hear me and that’s why he went forward. I know better. He looked around at me. He shook his head and pointed to that pillbox. He was the only one that saw it. He started forward. He knew what he was doing all right.”
What followed next saved the lives of those around him.
“[H]e started creeping toward [the enemy nest],” his citation describes. “Another burst from the machine gun wounded him the second time. Despite the wounds, he continued his heroic advance, attracting enemy fire and answering with rifle fire. When he was close enough to his objective, he began throwing hand grenades, and while doing so was hit again and killed.”
His heroic sacrifice enabled his fellow soldiers to safely withdraw.
But then something happened that would make Young’s name famous all across America. The songwriter Frank Loesser was then serving as a private in the Army. When he heard of Young’s action, he was moved to write a piece, “The Ballad of Rodger Young.”
The song concludes:
No, they’ve got no time for glory in the Infantry
No, they’ve got no use for praises loudly sung,
But in every soldier’s heart in all the Infantry
Shines the name, shines the name of Rodger Young.
Shines the name—Rodger Young!
Fought and died for the men he marched among.
To the everlasting glory of the Infantry
Lives the story of Private Rodger Young.
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Duane Vachon, Small Man, Big Hero—Pvt. Rodger Wilton Young, U.S. Army (1918-1943) (Hawaii Reporter; July 30, 2011)
Medal of Honor citation (Rodger Young; WWII)
Ohio to Honor Heroic Native Son (Cincinnati Enquirer; July 30, 1950) (page 64)
On Memorial Day, Honoring an Unlikely Hero from WWII (Boston Globe; May 30, 1999) (page E1 and E3)
Robert Skimin, Footprints Of Heroes: From The American Revolution To The War In Iraq (2010)
The Ballad of Rodger Young: An infantry private who became a hero inspires a new song (LIFE Mag; Mar. 5, 1945)
Young, Rodger W. (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums website)