This Day in History: Sergeant Truman Olson at the Battle of Anzio
On this day in 1945, a U.S. army sergeant is posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Truman Olson had given his life during the bloody and difficult Battle of Anzio just one year earlier.
That battle was part of the Allied effort to defeat the Axis powers in Italy.
Olson’s heroism came at the end of a long 16-hour assault on January 30, 1944. His company had finally gained a foothold against the enemy’s position, although the cost had been dear. One-third of Olson’s company had become casualties.
“[T]he survivors,” the citation notes, “dug in behind a horseshoe elevation, placing Sgt. Olson and his crew, with the 1 available machinegun, forward of their lines.”
These brave American soldiers had been fighting all night long, and they knew that they were now in an exposed position. They had to have been exhausted. Yet they stood firm in the face of an expected German counterattack.
“Although he had been fighting without respite,” the citation continues, “Sgt. Olson stuck grimly to his post all night while his guncrew was cut down, 1 by 1, by accurate and overwhelming enemy fire.”
By morning, Olson was wounded, but he was also the only one left manning the machinegun. He refused to leave. Just imagine that! Two hundred Germans were launching mortar and machinegun fire at him, yet he knew that “only his weapons stood between his company and complete destruction.” So he stayed. For an hour and a half, he kept up his own machine gun fire. He killed at least 20 Germans and wounded more. The Germans were finally forced to withdraw.
Unfortunately, Olson received wounds during this time that proved to be fatal.
Another officer later recounted that he “brought the medics to Sergeant Olson. He had serious shell-fragment wounds in his back and left leg and was just about done for when we arrived to evacuate him. His wounds were so severe that he died while being carried to the rear.”
Olson had saved his company, but not himself.
It would take many more months, but the Allies would go on to win the Battle of Anzio and capture Rome.
Logistical note for those who care:
You’ll see conflicting information for the date of this award. The CMOHS webpage cites January 24, but I believe this must be a typo. I found copies of several January 22, 1945, newspapers reporting that Olson had been awarded the medal “yesterday” (on January 21). Either way, it is a great story about an American hero.
Anzio: The U.S. Army Campaigns of World War II (U.S. Army Center of Military History)
Heroic Cambridge Soldier Given Congressional Medal (Milwaukee Journal; Jan. 22, 1945)
John S. D. Eisenhower, They Fought at Anzio (2007)
Medal of Honor citation (Truman O. Olson; WWII)
State Soldier Awarded Medal (Rhinelander Daily News; Jan. 22, 1945)