More than half of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II were recognized posthumously. Today we look at brief sketches of three men who died on November 19 — one in 1943, two in 1944 — while bringing honor to themselves and their country.
Capt. John P. Cromwell, Navy
The 42-year-old Illinois native was in charge of a wolf pack of four submarines in the Pacific and was aboard the U.S.S. Sculpin on November 19, 1943, when she was fatally wounded in an engagement with the Japanese destroyer Yamagumo. Due to damage caused by depth charges, the Sculpin had to surface and was finished off by the destroyer’s guns.
As the rest of the crew abandoned ship, Cromwell and 11 others remained aboard and scuttled the vessel. Cromwell was afraid his knowledge of Ultra — the allied success in breaking German codes — and other key plans might be extracted from him under torture, so he chose to go down with the ship.
Cromwell’s Medal of Honor citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Commander of a Submarine Coordinated Attack Group with Flag in the U.S.S. Sculpin, during the 9th War Patrol of that vessel in enemy-controlled waters off Truk Island, 19 November 1943. Undertaking this patrol prior to the launching of our first large-scale offensive in the Pacific, Capt. Cromwell, alone of the entire Task Group, possessed secret intelligence information of our submarine strategy and tactics, scheduled Fleet movements and specific attack plans. Constantly vigilant and precise in carrying out his secret orders, he moved his underseas flotilla inexorably forward despite savage opposition and established a line of submarines to southeastward of the main Japanese stronghold at Truk. Cool and undaunted as the submarine, rocked and battered by Japanese depth charges, sustained terrific battle damage and sank to an excessive depth, he authorized the Sculpin to surface and engage the enemy in a gunfight, thereby providing an opportunity for the crew to abandon ship. Determined to sacrifice himself rather than risk capture and subsequent danger of revealing plans under Japanese torture or use of drugs, he stoically remained aboard the mortally wounded vessel as she plunged to her death. Preserving the security of his mission, at the cost of his own life, he had served his country as he had served the Navy, with deep integrity and an uncompromising devotion to duty. His great moral courage in the face of certain death adds new luster to the traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Pfc. Francis X. McGraw, Army
A 26-year-old Camden, N.J., native, McGraw was part of Company H of the 26th Infantry Regiment in the 1st Infantry Division. The Big Red One went into action in the Hurtgen Forest on November 16, 1944.
The heavily wooded environment left the 26th Infantry in a predicament described in a division history, “Blue Spaders,” as “an almost unalloyed infantry battle. Trees and undergrowth so limited observation that the effectiveness of artillery was reduced severely. Mud and a dearth of roads restricted armored support. The inevitable hazards of forest fighting—shell bursts in the trees and open flanks—plagued the regiment from the start.”
It was in the midst of these conditions that McGraw would demonstrate extraordinary courage in his final hours on earth.
His Medal of Honor citation reads:
He manned a heavy machinegun emplaced in a foxhole near Schevenhutte, Germany, on 19 November 1944, when the enemy launched a fierce counterattack. Braving an intense hour-long preparatory barrage, he maintained his stand and poured deadly accurate fire into the advancing foot troops until they faltered and came to a halt. The hostile forces brought up a machinegun in an effort to dislodge him but were frustrated when he lifted his gun to an exposed but advantageous position atop a log, courageously stood up in his foxhole and knocked out the enemy weapon. A rocket blasted his gun from position, but he retrieved it and continued firing. He silenced a second machinegun and then made repeated trips over fire-swept terrain to replenish his ammunition supply. Wounded painfully in this dangerous task, he disregarded his injury and hurried back to his post, where his weapon was showered with mud when another rocket barely missed him. In the midst of the battle, with enemy troops taking advantage of his predicament to press forward, he calmly cleaned his gun, put it back into action and drove off the attackers. He continued to fire until his ammunition was expended, when, with a fierce desire to close with the enemy, he picked up a carbine, killed 1 enemy soldier, wounded another and engaged in a desperate firefight with a third until he was mortally wounded by a burst from a machine pistol. The extraordinary heroism and intrepidity displayed by Pvt. McGraw inspired his comrades to great efforts and was a major factor in repulsing the enemy attack.
S/Sgt. Ruben Rivers, Army
Rivers, a 23-year-old who grew up in Oklahoma, landed on Omaha Beach with the rest of the 761st Tank Battalion on October 10, 1944. The battalion initially consisted of six white officers and 706 black officers and enlisted men, and was attached to Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army.
The 761st saw its first combat action in France on November 7 and had acquitted itself well in a handful of engagements before attacking Guebling, France, southeast of Metz, on November 16. Rivers suffered a significant leg injury that day when his tank hit a mine, but refused to leave the fight.
Rivers was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for his actions. According to an Army News story from 1997, Capt. David Williams, a white officer with the 761st, said he had recommended Rivers for the Medal of Honor. None of the 432 such honors awarded during the war went to black service members, though. In 1996, President Bill Clinton authorized the Medal of Honor for Rivers and six other black servicemen, and they were awarded in January 1997.
Rivers’ Medal of Honor citation reads:
For extraordinary heroism in action during the 15-19 November 1944, toward Guebling, France. Though severely wounded in the leg, Sergeant Rivers refused medical treatment and evacuation, took command of another tank, and advanced with his company in Guebling the next day. Repeatedly refusing evacuation, Sergeant Rivers continued to direct his tank’s fire at enemy positions through the morning of 19 November 1944. At dawn, Company A’s tanks began to advance towards Bourgaltroff, but were stopped by enemy fire. Sergeant Rivers, joined by another tank, opened fire on the enemy tanks, covering company A as they withdrew. While doing so, Sergeant River’s tank was hit, killing him and wounding the crew. Staff Sergeant Rivers’ fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his unit and exemplify the highest traditions of military service.