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

On this day in 1916, a hero is born. Thomas McCall would receive a Medal of Honor for his courage during World War II, yet he surely thought that his bravery under fire in Italy wasn’t his most important feat.

His last, most personal sacrifice came when he saved the life of his 8-year-old son. It was an act that topped off years of bravery, first in World War II, then in Korea.


But it was his action on January 22, 1944, that earned a Medal.


S/Sgt. McCall was then with Company F, 143d Infantry, near the Rapido River in Italy. Americans were attacking entrenched German positions, and his squads were to provide cover for riflemen. McCall’s citation describes the “intense enemy mortar, artillery, and machine-gun fire” that rained down on our soldiers as they crossed an icy bridge. Wounded were falling. Matters threatened to get chaotic, but McCall “with unusual calmness,” his citation says, “encouraged and welded his men into an effective fighting unit.” He soon had his two squads established in positions where they could cover the battalion’s front.


Just then, an enemy shell hit near one of the positions, wounding the gunner, killing the assistant gunner, and destroying the weapon. McCall crawled through fire to reach the wounded man and pulled him to safety, but he soon discovered that the gunners at the other position had been wounded, too.


It was up to McCall.


He charged the closest enemy machine gun nest, killing or wounding all the enemy. “As he knocked it out, another machine gun opened fire on him from 20 yards to the left,” 2d Lt. Elmer Ward described. “He charged this position, killing two enemy and forcing two others to flee. He fired again and killed them. A third enemy machine gun opened fire on him from 50 yards to the rear of his position. When I last saw him, he was in the attack, advancing on the position and firing the machine gun from his hip.”


Everyone thought McCall had been killed, but (in reality) he’d been captured. His parents received his Medal “posthumously” in early 1945. What a wonderful blessing when he was later discovered to be alive!?!


He was among those POWs liberated during the final days of the war.


McCall came home, recovered from his many wounds, got married, became a father—and then tragedy hit.


On September 19, 1965, he and his son were fishing on the Susquehanna River in central Maryland. While they were on the river, the locks of the Conowingo Dam were opened. Newspapers in 1965 reported that McCall heard the warning signal, but that his anchor was stuck. Thomas McCall, Jr. tells a different story.


“All of a sudden, they opened the floodgates on us, but didn’t let off a siren or turn on the lights to give us any warning,” McCall, Jr. told a journalist in 1997. “It swamped us.”


Either way, the opened locks proved disastrous. The boat was overturned in the crashing water. “The next thing I know, we were in the water and my dad was holding me up,” McCall, Jr. described. His father was working to hold him above the water and to get him to safety. Onlookers saw what was happening and rushed to help. They were able to retrieve the little boy, but it was too late for his father.


The man who had survived German attacks gave his life to save his son, but both acts of heroism were celebrated at his funeral.


“[Y]our father put his country above all,” a chaplain concluded at the funeral, “and served in a way few could even if they had the chance.”

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Primary Sources:

  • City’s Only Medal of Honor Winner Dies Hero’s Death Trying to Save Son (Journal and Courier; Sept. 20, 1965) (p. 1)

  • Clayton David Laurie, Rome-Arno: The U.S. Army Campaigns of World War II (U.S. Army Center of Military History; 1994)

  • Dan McFreely, After 17 years, His Dad’s 2nd Medal of Honor Arrives (Indianapolis News; Feb. 4, 1997) (p. 2)

  • Medal on Display at Frankfort Library (Journal and Courier; Feb 10, 1997) (p. 19)

  • Medal of Honor citation (Thomas E. McCall; WWII)

  • Medal of Honor Winner Drowned; Son is Rescued: Hero of World War II and Korea Dies as Boat is Swamped in Locks (The Record; Sept. 21, 1965) (p. 37)

  • Medal of Honor Winner Drowns in Susquehanna (Evening Sun; Sept. 21, 1965) (p. 15)

  • Norman Bess, Hero Honored at Graveside Rites (Indianapolis News; Sept. 25, 1965) (p. 18)

  • Obituary: M/Sgt. T.E. McCall (Pittsburgh Press; Sept. 23, 1965) (p. 54)

  • Rites Planned for Hero (Pittsburgh Press; Sept. 22, 1965) (p. 2)