DUPONT, Pierce County —
It figures that Wilburn Ross is a low-key kind of guy.
When you’re a hero, the kind who is awarded the Medal of Honor, this country’s highest military tribute, you don’t have to prove anything to anyone.
“Hero? I don’t know about that. Shoot, I was lucky. That’s the main thing, lucky,” says Ross, who is 91, a little hard of hearing, but still very much active.
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Here are the basics of what happened beginning at 11:30 on the morning of Oct. 30, 1944, near St. Jacques, France.
Ross’ Army company had lost 55 out of 88 men in an attack on a German company of elite mountain troops, and in counterattacks by the Germans.
His citation says, “Despite the hail of automatic fire and the explosion of rifle grenades within a stone’s throw of his position, he continued to man his machine gun alone … enemy grenadiers crawled to within 4 yards of his position in an effort to kill him with hand grenades … ”
Through eight assaults, remaining at his post for 36 hours, Ross killed or wounded 58 Germans, forcing them to withdraw.
On the morning of this Veterans Day, at the National WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Postal Service will hold a special dedication.
Ross and George Sakato, another Medal of Honor recipient from that war, will be special guests at a ceremony in which the images of 12 WWII recipients of the medal will be depicted in a forever stamp folio.
Time is claiming this group of men.
When the Postal Service began the project in January 2012, there were 12 of them alive. Now that number is eight, and only two could make it to the nation’s capital.
(There are just 78 living Medal of Honor recipients — besides the WWII vets, 11 are from the Korean War, 53 from the Vietnam War and six from the war in Afghanistan.)
Telling the stories
DuPont is a little town of 8,600 across the freeway from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
They recognize Ross here, when he drives to the post office or does errands.
He doesn’t mind the recognition and even has a Medal of Honor license plate on his car.
“Sometimes people salute me,” he says.
For those wanting a souvenir from meeting a hero, Ross carries some business cards.
One of them has a photograph at a ceremony at the White House in May 1963, with President Kennedy shaking his hand. Six months later, JFK would be assassinated.
Another card lists some dates, including the four times Ross was wounded while serving with Company G, 30th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division.
There was the landing on the island of Sicily, in August 1943.
“We landed at night. You run to the shore. I was standing up, the guy next to me was squatting down. He was killed. They were shooting grenades at us. I got shrapnel in my chest and right arm. I couldn’t hear for three days.”
Ross talks about it in a matter-of-fact voice.
He says about all the battles he was in: “I’ve thought about it a few times.”
Maybe that’s how you deal with stuff when you’re the son of a Kentucky coal miner.
On to the next remembrance, Anzio, Italy, October 1943.
His foxhole would fill up with water, and his feet were frostbitten and he was in quite a bit of pain.
He was hospitalized for a month. “They put some kind of oil on them and wrapped them. Then I went back to the front.”
Then came France, in September 1944, the month before the battle in which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
This time, an explosion from a grenade hit him in the cheek. He lost two molars, “One up, one down.”
He was sewn up at a field hospital and soon told he was going back to the front.
Ross says he could barely chew because his mouth and cheek “was hardly healed up.”
Miraculously, he wasn’t injured in the battle that won him the medal.
In that battle, out of ammunition, Ross was told to return to the command post, along with eight surviving riflemen. He said he’d stay, hoping more ammunition would arrive.
As his supporting riflemen fixed bayonets for a last-ditch stand, fresh ammunition did arrive just in time, when the Germans were about to swarm his position. The citation says that Ross “opened murderous fire” and forced the Germans to withdraw.
Ross was among five members of the 3rd Infantry Division to be awarded the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg, used for those massive Nazi rallies.
“Afterwards they used something like 400 pounds of dynamite and blew up that big swastika in the stadium. Big chunks were flying all over,” he says.
There would be no more front-line duty for Ross. That was just fine with him.
“I stayed with the cooks. I didn’t ask to go back,” he says.
He returned to the U.S. in 1945, worked for a year with the Kentucky Highway Patrol and joined the Army Air Force. He wanted to put in 20 years total service and get a pension. In 1950, he was sent to the Korean War.
It’d be on Day 9 after arriving there that machine-gun fire hit the back of his left knee.
He ended up in a hospital in Japan. It took a year for the knee to heal, including grafting “a big slab of skin from my thigh” onto the wound.
That was enough war duty.
After the war
In 1964 Ross retired from the service. He had been drafted in 1942 at age 20.
His pension was $150 a month, he says.
He and his wife, Monica, who died in 2011, had six children.
The pension, even if you were a Medal of Honor recipient, wasn’t enough.
At one point, Ross worked two jobs, at a pickle factory and driving a school bus, and then a full-time job driving a patient shuttle for the VA hospital.
Last week, Ross was preparing to fly to the nation’s capital with one of his sons. News releases have been sent out about the event.
But if any reporters are expecting some great philosophical statement from him about war and peace, they might want to ask somebody else.
Ask Ross why he didn’t take off for safety when he ran out of ammo and the Germans were coming, and he says, “I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.”
He is asked what that Medal of Honor meant to him as he was honored long ago in that Nazi stadium.
He replies that he figured that finally, “I could just go someplace and sleep for a month.”
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @ErikLacitis