Jack C. Montgomery was a Cherokee from Oklahoma, and a first lieutenant with the 45th Infantry Division Thunderbirds. On February 22, 1944, near Padiglione, Italy, Montgomery's rifle platoon was under fire by three echelons of enemy forces when he single-handedly attacked all three positions, neutralizing the German machine-gunners and taking numerous prisoners in the process. Montgomery's actions demoralized the enemy and saved the lives of many American soldiers.
The Medal of Honor series profiles the courage and accomplishments of recipients of the highest and most prestigious personal military decoration, awarded to recognize U.S. military service members who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary acts of valor.
About the Author
Michael P. Spradlin is the New York Times–bestselling and Edgar Award–nominated author of more than a dozen books for children, including the Western Heritage Award–winning Off Like the Wind: The Story of the Pony Express. Spradlin grew up in Homer, Michigan, and attended Central Michigan University where he graduated with a BS degree in history in 1982. He currently resides in Lapeer, Michigan, with his wife, daughter, and two schnoodles, Apollo and Willow.
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Anzio, Italy January 30, 1944
Lieutenant Jack Cleveland Montgomery led his platoon through the icy-cold knee-deep seawater toward the beach. As he did, he thought about the way things worked in the U.S. Army — how the decisions of where and when to fight were made. The generals never asked the guys on the ground, the platoon leaders like him, for their opinions. They just gave the orders. He sure wished they'd asked this time. In private conversations, most every one of his fellow officers wondered about this battle plan. They said it made no sense. It was too rushed. They had air support and plenty of troops, but a lot was missing to ensure a successful mission.
First was the lack of critical intelligence. Which divisions of the German army were facing them? How much infantry? Artillery? How many paratroopers?
German forces had been chased out of Sicily — the large Mediterranean island just off the "toe" of boot-shaped Italy — and were scrambling to get into position to hold the Italian Peninsula. The Italians had already surrendered, their air force shot out of the sky. Did the Luftwaffe — the German air force — have pilots and planes ready to attack? No one knew exactly what was ahead.
The Germans were concentrating their defenses along the Gustav Line, which stretched roughly a hundred miles across the narrowest part of the Italian Peninsula. Thousands of soldiers manned machine guns and artillery in trenches and concrete fortifications across the mountains. Planted with land mines and strung with barbed wire, this defensive position blocked the most logical and direct route from the south to Rome, the capital of Italy.
The officers of the U.S. landing forces understood that Adolf Hitler, the German führer, was incensed at how quickly the Italian army had folded after the Allies showed up. If he didn't divert German troops to slow the enemy's advance north through Italy, the Allies could march right up to Berlin, the German capital, or invade southern France, which his forces occupied. Hitler already had his hands full with the Soviet army in the east, which was turning back his invasion of the Soviet Union. He was also fortifying the northern coast of France, believing the Allies would launch an invasion from across the English Channel. To say the führer was in a bit of a tizzy would be a vast understatement.
HITLER VS. THE ALLIES
Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and his Nazi Party rose to power in Germany in the 1930s. In 1933, he became Germany's chancellor and soon established an absolute dictatorship, holding control over the entire German state. He remained in power by eliminating all other political parties, controlling the military, and imprisoning or executing his opponents.
The Allies were the countries who had banded together to defeat Hitler, including Britain, France, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, the Soviet Union, China, and the United States of America.
Jack Montgomery had fought with the Allied forces a few months earlier as they cut through Sicily like a sharp knife through cheese. He had earned a battlefield commission and was promoted from sergeant to second lieutenant. Now they had sailed around the Gustav Line, and Rome was within their reach. Still it wasn't going to be easy. It never was. Lieutenant Montgomery and his men had no idea they would end up fighting some of the Nazis' most battle-hardened troops.
The second problem, and the most critical for an infantryman as far as Lieutenant Montgomery was concerned, was that they were going ashore with almost thirty-six thousand troops but without nearly enough armor. His Thunderbirds — the 45th Infantry, with about 1,500 Native American soldiers — were landing behind the German lines. Only one division of armor was attached to the operation, providing limited tanks and not enough heavy artillery for ground fire support. Not good. Not good at all. Without enough armor, infantrymen like Montgomery and his platoon didn't tend to last long in a fight.
In truth, this was how the army worked. When leaders saw an opportunity, they took it. Sure, the generals studied maps and intelligence briefings, discussed the best way to deploy their forces, and made plans. But most of the time it was a "ready or not" approach. If they thought they had a chance to land behind enemy lines and punch Hitler in the kisser, they took it, whether or not they had the right number of troops, ships, equipment, or whatever. And they didn't give two hoots and a holler about what a lieutenant in the infantry thought about their plans. Especially when the lieutenant was a Cherokee who belonged to a National Guard regiment. His opinions went to the back of the line. It was his job to fight when he was told to. The army wasn't interested in his suggestions.
"Dang, this water's cold," he heard a voice behind him say.
"It ain't gonna get any warmer from all yer hot air," a no-nonsense sergeant groused.
The soldiers of his platoon trudged through the water in full gear, packs weighed down with ammunition and rations. Lieutenant Montgomery could tell his men were nervous and scared. Stumbling along, suffocated by equipment so heavy they could barely move, they could almost feel the German guns pointed at them.
That was another thing that bothered Montgomery. There weren't enough landing craft. Instead, many troops rode in small boats as close to the shore as they could, and then waded the rest of the way. The whole operation felt rushed from the start. With a landing craft, you at least had a fighting chance. It could drive right up on the beach with its machine guns blazing, giving you covering fire. The ramp lowered, and you ran out of it like a fox chasing a hen until you found cover.
Sometimes the bullets flew so thick you swore you could walk on them. Then the tiniest piece of cover would do. A small dip in the sand, a piece of driftwood. Anything that made you feel like it would offer even the smallest amount of protection. The only thing Montgomery couldn't understand was, here they were, wading ashore, and there was no resistance. No German or Italian machine guns or artillery attempting to halt their advance. At least not yet.
He didn't like it. Not one bit. Had they somehow surprised the Germans? Were they expecting the Allies to land someplace else?
The platoon finally reached the shallows, and Montgomery and his team splashed ashore. The usually incessant German shelling had momentarily ceased. Montgomery and his men had been ordered in as reinforcements for an offensive taking place a few miles inland. So far, Allied air power had been unable to knock out the German guns waiting to greet the invaders.
Montgomery studied the terrain around them. Far off in the distance he could see rocky mountain ranges. They were covered in thick woods. If he were the Germans, scrambling to get into position to defend against the invasion, that's where he'd go. He wouldn't like it, but he would concede the beach and concentrate his forces on the high ground. It was classic military strategy. Always take the high ground; facing an enemy from above gave you the advantage.
Montgomery looked back toward the beach. What days ago had been empty shoreline now teemed with tents, vehicles, and army personnel. Farther off, on the blue water of the Mediterranean Sea, dozens of Allied ships of all sizes bobbed on the waves. Compared to what they had gone through in Sicily, this landing had gone smoothly.
Hearing a low whistling sound, Montgomery returned his gaze to the distant mountains. It grew louder, heading straight for them. It was the unmistakable hum of an artillery shell. It was soon joined in chorus by dozens of others.
"Incoming!" someone shouted.
Montgomery's platoon scrambled to haul their gear and take whatever cover they could find. The world around them exploded in noise and fire.
The Germans had just announced their presence with authority. Montgomery knew instantly this wasn't going to be like Sicily. They wouldn't be facing poorly trained and ill-equipped Italian troops that had already given up.
"Everybody dig in!" he shouted. "I guess they know we're here."CHAPTER 2
AN ATHLETE GOES TO WAR
Jack Cleveland Montgomery was born near Long, Oklahoma, on July 23, 1917. He grew up on a farm in Sequoyah County, just west of the Arkansas border, where thousands of Cherokees had resettled in the 1830s after the U.S. government forcibly removed them from their lands in the southeastern United States. Their forced march to Oklahoma came to be known as the Trail of Tears.
Montgomery's mother was Cherokee, and at age thirteen he and his three sisters attended Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, a boarding school run by the federal government. He was an outstanding athlete. "There were maybe three or four hundred students in the school. I started in the seventh grade and stayed throughout my sophomore year," Montgomery said. (In an interesting coincidence for such a small school, another Chilocco student, Ernest Childers, would also be awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II.)
In eleventh grade, he attended public high school in Carnegie, Oklahoma, where he lettered in basketball and football. Classmates described Montgomery as a kind, humorous, and outgoing young man. He "showed great determination to finish what he started," according to one. His football prowess earned him a scholarship to Bacone College, in Muskogee, a college that catered to Native American students.
While Montgomery was a student at Bacone, he enrolled in the Oklahoma National Guard, joining I Company of the 180th Infantry Regiment in 1937. The company was composed almost entirely of Native American students from Bacone. It was a way to make a little extra money during the Great Depression.
Living in Oklahoma in the 1930s was not easy for farming families like Jack Montgomery's. America was in the middle of the worst economic disaster in U.S. history. More than 20 percent of the nation's population was unemployed. Oklahoma was very hard hit. The state was experiencing a prolonged drought, which killed the crops and dried up the top layer of dirt where crops grow and flourish. Winds swept the exposed topsoil away in gigantic dust storms across the Great Plains, and prairieland in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico became known as the Dust Bowl. Farmers lost all their land and money. Oklahoma's agricultural industry nearly died.
These "black blizzards" sometimes traveled all the way to the East Coast. Circumstances were so bad that the Dust Bowl became a nationwide obsession. Newspapers ran front-page stories on the Oklahomans' plight. Movie theaters showed newsreels of the horrible conditions.
Thousands of starving, desperate Oklahomans abandoned the state and headed to California, looking for greater opportunity. It was one of the biggest voluntary mass migrations in American history. Those who left became known as Okies. Some of Jack Montgomery's family left in beat-up trucks and old cars, or in any transportation they could find, riding on freight trains or hitchhiking. So many people traveled to California along U.S. Route 66 that author John Steinbeck dubbed it "the mother road, the road of flight" in The Grapes of Wrath, his 1939 novel about the plight of a poor farming family.
In 1938, Montgomery headed to California, too. After he earned his associate's degree at Bacone, he accepted a scholarship to the University of Redlands. There he continued to star on the football field and cemented his legend for toughness.
During one Redlands game in famed Rose Bowl Stadium, a player on the opposing team burst through the Redlands defensive line and was on his way to an easy touchdown. Only one thing stood in his way. Number twenty-two, Jack C. Montgomery. Montgomery tackled the ball carrier so hard that he left the man unconscious. The crowd was stunned, and one woman is said to have remarked, "Did that little ole boy knock out that great big man?"
Montgomery earned a bachelor's degree in physical education in 1940, but with no place to go after graduation, he returned to Oklahoma. He looked for a job as a teacher or a coach but found he lacked the proper educational credits to teach. So he rejoined his old National Guard unit, completed his required year of service, and was discharged as a sergeant in September 1941.
America was finally emerging from the Great Depression, but the rest of the world was in turmoil. Japan had invaded China in 1937, destroying everything in its path as it marched through the countryside. Millions of Chinese citizens were killed during the onslaught. Japan was now looking to expand its empire southward and become the dominant power in the Pacific.
In Europe, in 1939, Hitler had launched his blitzkrieg, or "lightning war," in Poland. Indeed, the Germans were the first to use this tactic of striking targets quickly and without mercy. In a blitzkrieg, Germans would concentrate planes, tanks, and artillery on a narrow front and drive a breach into the country's defenses. Armored tanks would quickly penetrate and drive freely behind the lines, causing chaos and disorganization. German planes would prevent any reinforcements, and soon opposing troops would be encircled and forced to surrender. Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France all fell to these maneuvers and the might of the German army.
THE RISE OF THE NAZIS
In 1919 Adolf Hitler joined the small German Workers' Party, the forerunner of the Nazis, at a meeting in a Munich beer hall. In 1923 Hitler and his Nazi Party attempted to overthrow the German government and failed. He was tried for treason and sent to jail. While locked up for nine months, he wrote a book that outlined his vision for Germany to take its place as a global superpower through national socialism. National socialism stresses the obedience of the citizen to the government in all matters, emphasizes inequality of the races, and asserts the right of the strong to rule the weak.
Through a relentless propaganda campaign in posters, newspapers, and rallies, the Nazis grew in popularity, and Hitler found a national audience. He promised to make Germany into a powerful nation and to take back lands he believed rightfully belonged to the German people. He opposed communism and believed that the Soviet Union, as a communist state, posed a serious threat to German security.
When the Nazis won the most votes of any party in the 1932 elections, Hitler demanded he be made chancellor. He was appointed in 1933, and when the nominal president died in 1934, Hitler declared himself führer, or leader.
As Hitler gained power over the everyday lives of German citizens, he implemented a plan to "purify" the German race. The Nazis stripped Jews of their German citizenship and prohibited them from marrying German citizens. The state-sponsered racism would ultimately force all Jews and other minorities into concentration camps.
The world saw Hitler as a looming threat as he ordered conscription into the military and ramped up the German industrial base to build planes, tanks, ships, and submarines. But the world did nothing when he took over German-speaking Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia. That changed when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and crushed the Polish army in one swift blow.
In July 1940, the German Luftwaffe began almost daily bombing runs on Great Britain to prepare for an invasion. The raids would go on for three months in an attempt to break the will of the nation. However, the British people and especially the Royal Air Force refused to give in during the Battle of Britain.
No matter how many attacks the Germans launched, British fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force turned them back. Running short on fuel, planes, and supplies, the RAF pilots would fly mission after mission, taking time only to grab a quick meal while landing and refueling their aircraft before taking off to fight again.
British bomber pilots were not idle. As Germany attacked, Britain retaliated, increasing its own bombing runs on important targets in territory the Germans had recently conquered, such as submarine bases and strategic ports along the coast of France. The Royal Air Force was outmanned and outgunned, but with the support of the British people and the encouragement of their leader, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the RAF fought the Germans to a stalemate, forcing Hitler to abandon his invasion plans.
This was the world Jack C. Montgomery found himself in when his enlistment in the National Guard ended in September 1941. There was no doubt the United States was gearing up for war, but the country was still divided. Many citizens wanted America to enter the war to help our allies, especially in Europe. Others were drastically opposed to any involvement.
But soon came an event that changed everything. It united the country in a way it has seldom been, before or since. It caused Jack C. Montgomery to reenlist.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Medal of Honor: Jack Montgomery"
Copyright © 2019 Michael P. Spradlin.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
U.S. ARMY RANKS,
U.S. ARMY UNITS AND SIZES,
1 STEPPING ASHORE,
2 AN ATHLETE GOES TO WAR,
3 DIGGING IN,
4 ATTACK OF THE THUNDERBIRDS,
5 A SPY STORY,
6 THE INVASION OF SICILY,
7 FROM SALERNO TO ANZIO,
8 "COVER ME",
JACK C. MONTGOMERY'S MEDAL OF HONOR CITATION,
KEY TERMS AND NAMES,
THE MEDAL OF HONOR SERIES,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,