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This Day in History: Thomas Fowler's bravery in Italy

On this day in 1944, an American hero is killed in action. Thomas “Tom” Fowler’s life wasn’t supposed to end in Italy, thousands of miles away from home. Indeed, he’d once thought his life would revolve around “the finest farm and the best horse in the whole state of Texas.”

 

Yet he went to war when his country needed him. His brave service would ultimately earn him the Medal of Honor.

 

Fowler was the fourth of five sons, living and working on his family’s farm. After high school, he went to Texas A&M where he was a cadet captain and an executive officer of the cavalry. He graduated in 1943, went to officer candidate school, and married his high school sweetheart, Ann.

 

Their son was born just a few months after he was deployed overseas.

 

“I wish so much I could be with you,” Tom wrote Ann. “Maybe, though, my being here will keep our little one from having to come over here. That is the way I look at it.”

 

The young soldier’s heroism came on May 23, 1944, just outside Carano, Italy, in the midst of what’s been called a “full-scale armored-infantry attack.” He was then a second lieutenant, serving with the 191st Tank Battalion, 1st Armored Division. He’d been moving ahead on foot when he saw two infantry platoons stopped in their advance.

 

They’d lost their officers near a German minefield, and it was apparently a disordered mess. Fowler assumed command, getting the men organized before turning his attention to the minefield.

 

“He then made a personal reconnaissance through the minefield,” his Medal citation would later explain, “clearing a path as he went, by lifting the antipersonnel mines out of the ground with his hands. After he had gone through the 75-yard belt of deadly explosives, he returned to the infantry and led them through the minefield, a squad at a time.”

 

Would you believe he found a way to navigate the tanks through that minefield, too? He got them positioned to support the infantry, then turned back toward the front.

 

He wasn’t done yet.

 

Fowler moved about 300 yards in front of the combined infantry and tank force, acting as a scout, until he came upon some enemy nests. “Having taken them by surprise,” his citation concludes, “2d Lt. Fowler dragged them out of their foxholes and sent them to the rear; twice, when they resisted, he threw hand grenades into their dugouts.”

 

Fowler was repositioning some of the infantry and tanks when a German counterattack began.

 

“Several enemy tanks—I saw four—began advancing toward us,” 2nd Lt. Oscar L. Smith later recounted, “One of our tanks was hit and set afire. Lt. Fowler ran to my tank, asked for a first aid kit, and went to the burning tank and gave first aid, attempting to save the lives of three wounded men. He had run directly into the fire of the oncoming enemy tanks.”

 

He stayed there for about 30 minutes, working to save the wounded tank crew, despite the enemy fire. He retreated only when he was about to be overrun—but, even then, he found a spot to continue rendering first aid to nine of the wounded.

 

Amazingly, Fowler survived his actions that day, and he participated in the rest of the Allied advance across Italy. His luck came to an end on June 3, when he was shot by a German sniper just one day before Rome was liberated.

 

About five months later, his widow and young son received the Medal of Honor on his behalf.

 

“Thomas was a soldier and a gentleman and he seemed to know better than most of us what we are fighting for,” Lt. Ralph W. Carr, Jr., another 191st Tank Battalion officer, concluded. “He died that you people back home would never see or feel the suffering that we have seen.”

 

Rest in peace, sir.


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