WWII Medal of Honor awardee dies at 91

Vernon McGarity, an Army sergeant who received the Medal of Honor for what was described as his intrepid leadership of his frozen, outgunned squad during the Battle of the Bulge, the last significant German offensive of World War II, died Tuesday at a hospice in Memphis, Tenn. He was 91.

He had cancer, said his daughter-in-law, Lee McGarity.

Sgt. McGarity spoke rarely, if ever, about the events that began on the morning of Dec. 16, 1944. At the time, the Allies were pushing toward Germany as the Wehrmacht suffered setbacks on both the Eastern and Western fronts.

The Germans decided to launch a surprise attack in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium — an epic offensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The most complete account of McGarity’s actions there is the citation for his Medal of Honor, awarded to him by President Harry Truman after the end of the war in 1945.

McGarity was positioned near Krinkelt, Belgium, with the 99th Infantry Division. Before the battle started, he was wounded in an artillery assault. He refused medical evacuation and instead returned to his men in the field, according to the citation, where “the fury of the enemy’s great Western Front offensive swirled about the position.”

Despite intense hostile fire, and despite the frigid conditions of the Belgian winter, McGarity managed to rescue a wounded friend. It would be his first of at least two rescue efforts during the fight. As the night wore on, the citation reads, he “exhorted his comrades to repulse the enemy’s attempts at infiltration.”

The morning brought an even fiercer assault of German tanks and infantry, and McGarity used a rocket launcher to take out the lead tank. His squad drove back the infantry and three other German tanks. Still under heavy fire, McGarity rescued another wounded soldier and then took on an enemy light cannon.

“Now, could he take a breather?” reads a 1970 tribute to McGarity in Checkerboard, a publication of the 99th Infantry Division Association. “Not on your life — his squad’s ammunition was running low.”

McGarity moved 100 yards toward the enemy to retrieve a hidden cache of ammunition. By that time, a German machine gun was trained on what would have been his way out. “Unhesitatingly,” the citation reads, “the gallant soldier took it upon himself to destroy this menace single-handedly.” Armed with a rifle, he killed or wounded all the gunners.

McGarity and his men fought until they had depleted their last rounds.

“I was still holding,” the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal quoted him as saying years later, “and did hold until such time as we ran out of ammunition and it was necessary to surrender.”

McGarity was captured and spent much of the rest of the war in captivity, until the German surrender.

In all, the Battle of the Bulge resulted in as many as 81,000 American casualties and more than 100,000 casualties on the German side, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

McGarity’s “extraordinary bravery and extreme devotion to duty,” reads the citation, “supported a remarkable delaying action which provided the time necessary for assembling reserves and forming a line against which the German striking power was shattered.”

Reflecting on the battle years later, McGarity told an interviewer, “The last words I heard were to hold at all costs.”

Vernon McGarity was born Dec. 1, 1921, in a small town near Savannah, Tenn. He worked with the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps before joining the Army at 21.

After the war, he served in the Tennessee National Guard for 28 years, achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel, according to his daughter-in-law. He worked in his home state for the Veterans Administration for 35 years, many of them at a Memphis hospital, where he helped veterans secure government benefits.

His wife of 52 years, Ethelene McGarity, died in 1998. Their daughter, Sharon McGarity, died in 1995. Survivors include a son, Ray McGarity of Bartlett, Tenn.

Besides the Medal of Honor, McGarity’s decorations included the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart.

“Next time we feel like giving up, we’ll remember Vernon McGarity,” reads the Checkerboard tribute. “Next time we think we have an impossible job, with nothing but trouble and no hope of recognition, we’ll remember Vernon McGarity — he proved that we can win by coming back for more.”

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