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This Day in History: Walter Wetzel’s “unhesitating sacrifice”

On this day in 1945, a United States soldier throws himself on two grenades, saving the lives of those around him. Pfc. Walter C. Wetzel would later receive a Medal of Honor for his “unhesitating sacrifice.”

His widow, Dorothy, would receive the Medal on his behalf. The two were still basically newlyweds. They’d been married for less than two years, and they’d spent less than three months of that time together. They were married in September 1943, but Walter was dispatched overseas in December 1943.

They were really just getting started. But now it was over.

Wetzel’s grave site in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial.

What went through Walter’s mind as he threw himself on that grenade? His half-sister later wondered about it. “They’re all trained in basic training to do all they can for their country, and that must be what he was thinking,” she concluded. “But who knows what ran through his mind? He just did it.” She’d never met her half-brother because she was born after his death. She’d grown up on tales of his heroism.

Wetzel’s sacrifice came during the early morning hours of April 3, 1945, as he was guarding a command post in a house in Birken, Germany. When he realized that enemy forces were moving toward the house, he ran inside to warn the others. The house soon came under heavy automatic weapons fire. It was still dark outside, and unfortunately some of the Germans were able to get close to the building. They hurled grenades toward the Americans. Two of these landed in the room where Wetzel and others had taken up firing positions. It was all over in a matter of seconds. Wetzel threw himself on the grenades, sacrificing himself but saving those around him. The soldiers who had been with him continued on; they were able to successfully defend the command post from the enemy.

Think of all that is lost—and how quickly it is lost—when a man like Wetzel makes this type of decision to sacrifice himself. Everything changes in a matter of seconds.

Dorothy Wetzel lost her chance to spend a lifetime with her new husband. She never had the opportunity to build and raise a family with him. Wetzel’s sister lost a chance to so much as meet him! And all of this, of course, is to say nothing of the loss of a parent when they receive news of a son’s death. The son that they spent years nurturing, protecting, teaching, and loving—now, quite simply, gone.

Amazingly, Wetzel wasn’t the only one. Many of our brave soldiers have made decisions to throw themselves on grenades in circumstances such as these.

Mere days before Wetzel’s sacrifice, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz made a statement about the Marines at Iwo Jima. But his words apply just as easily to men and women such as Wetzel.

“Among the Americans who served . . . uncommon valor was a common virtue,” Nimitz concluded.

How awesome that soldiers such as Wetzel have existed. And how overwhelming the sacrifice when they are gone.

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