Francis Currey, one of the last three living World War II Medal of Honor recipients, died Tuesday, Oct. 8 at his home in upstate New York. Currey was responsible for rescuing a pinned-down platoon of anti-tank soldiers, the elimination of an enemy tank, and the withdrawal of crews in three additional tanks while defending a bridge crossing in Malmedy, Belgium, on Dec. 21, 1944.
The Medal of Honor is a snapshot into a single day; history remembers the heroism, but we often forget that for those who survive, the humanity remains. There is still so much more to live for, so much more to accomplish, and so much more to do. Currey described how he beat the statistics for a soldier in combat during World War II. “The average lifespan of an infantry rifleman was 10 days,” Currey told National WWII Museum. “A platoon leader, even less … the 21st of December was just one day of nine months as far as I was concerned at the time.”
Currey was only 5 years old when his father died; at 12, his mother also passed away, leaving him to grow up in a foster care program. He received room and board on a farm in Hurleyville, New York, and enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 1943 at age 17.
Currey participated in some stateside training including the Louisiana Maneuvers, one of the last large exercises, before he was sent off to war. President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order declaring that all soldiers must be at least 19 years old before they deployed, and Currey hit that milestone on June 29. He arrived in England with a replacement unit, went through Omaha Beach a few months after D-Day, and then he was held in a replacement depot as the effort to push the Germans into Belgium unfolded. The heavy losses came once they hit the Siegfried Line, a fortified barrier that halted the advancement of American forces.
“I went through France almost like a tourist,” Currey said with a chuckle. “I can remember going up to the front, and the Army crossed right down to the Champs-Élysées in Paris. And I say, it looks like a tour. This is great!” Currey met up with the 30th Infantry Division in the Netherlands and saw his first combat in Kerkrade, Holland, in September. The company commander came to the rear to pick up Currey and two other replacements. They asked if they could all stick together. The company commander answered, “No problem, I just lost a whole squad today,” Currey recollected. “We looked at each other and thought, oh man, what are we getting into?”
During September and October they fought through the Siegfried Line, which expanded into several villages. They attacked the German city of Aachen from the northern flank. Later, near a bridge in Malmedy, a recon group along with a company commander gave them intelligence that said enemy armor couldn’t operate there. “We’ve been there about two days, and 4 o’clock that morning, here come the German tanks,” Currey said. “I always considered Army Intelligence an oxymoron.”
Gunfire echoed in the distance where an advanced force of Norwegian anti-tank squadmates and anti-tank guns were overrun, which forced them to retreat to cover. Their half-track was left near the abandoned Army hospital where Currey and his team were. “Next thing we know it, here comes a German tank barreling right down the highway towards us,” remembers Currey. “It was about 4 o’clock in the morning, just hazy light, and I could see it was German, and a German tanker was up in the turret, and I opened up on him and bugged him up with my Browning [Browning Automatic Rifle or BAR].” The tank continued across the bridge where their company post had a bazooka that fired a shot into its gas tank.
Another German tank followed, so Currey’s eight-man squad ran into a factory as they were too exposed on the bridge. He and his reloader emerged from the factory and returned to their old position, this time holding a bazooka of their own. “I don’t know how I ever did it, but apparently, what happened was, it was an American Sherman, they had captured it and put on German insignia,” Currey recalled. “And what I did was put the round right in where the turret turned and disabled it.” German infantry fought in the streets and after some time, three Germans were standing in a doorway. Currey snuck up on them and killed or wounded them with his BAR.
During another lull in the fire, Currey found that three German tanks had pulled up near the position of an American force. Currey moved to a half-track and found a whole case of anti-tank grenades. He later learned they were loud and smoky but less than effective in destroying a tank. He hid behind a bush and unloaded the rifle grenades onto their position anyway. “The tankers probably thought, Gee-wiz, we’re opened up with other things, so they abandoned the tanks.”
Two of the eight American troops he was with were wounded, so Currey positioned himself on a machine gun left behind by the Germans and covered their retreat to the Army hospital. “So here we are, six young Americans between the ages of 19 and 21, in the middle of Belgium, on a rural road, not the slightest idea of where we were, but what happened was, we were on the main road to Francorchamps. Eventually we ran into a roadblock from another one of our regiments.” They feared friendly fire as they approached from the German side, but ultimately returned to friendly lines without incident.
Currey, now a squad leader, had passed through where the Malmédy Massacre occurred and onto the town of Thirimont. The Malmédy Massacre was the deadliest mass execution of U.S. soldiers during World War II. On Jan. 14, 1945, during the Battle of the town of Thirimont, Currey sprinted through a field to the regimental headquarters of the 3rd Fallschirmjager Division, though he hadn’t realized it at the time. During the sprint, his teammate Gould was struck through the head and killed. A German machine gunner shot Currey through the elbow, and another soldier crashed into him through the doorway of the farmhouse.
The Germans were right above them and exchanged volleys of hand grenades. The Germans barricaded themselves behind a door and, since tanks weren’t used to wipe out houses during the battle, Currey elected to set fire to hay from the barn to smoke them out. Come nightfall, foxholes couldn’t be dug because the ground would freeze. All the fighting house to house was conducted in the open. For his actions, he received both the Purple Heart and the Silver Star.
The following day he almost lost his life, as he found himself so close to the enemy that he could hear them whisper. “I remember I tried going up there once and this young German came out and he had a Schmeiser automatic [MP-40 submachine gun] and we both opened up on each other and he took my helmet because the Schmeiser climbed and the BAR didn’t.”
Currey participated in the Battle of the Bulge and was promoted to tech sergeant platoon leader for the rest of the war. He stated that the war after the Bulge was more like clean up operations than intense combat. He described one notable instance when the Air Corps bombed a street in Magdeburg and a pile of rubble in the middle of the street had a three-man crew with machine-gun emplacement standing guard.
Currey and his squad entered a nearby apartment building with a third-story balcony. They ran up the stairs and kicked in the door to find a German family eating breakfast. They froze as if they were standing still in time. His squad crawled to the balcony window, he ordered his best BAR rifleman to shoot down upon the German position, and when the job was finished, they were out of the house and moving on to the next.
After he left the Army in 1946, Currey worked for the Veterans’ Administration and took advantage of the GI Bill to go to college. He helped veterans with complicated cases get schooling and helped bring down a drug ring that was operating out of the medical center. In his later years, he traveled to schools and educated children about the war. His reputation had such a positive effect that G.I. Joe immortalizes his younger self, equipped with a mini-bazooka, a mini-BAR, and a mini-Medal-of-Honor ribbon in 1998.
On July 22, 2003, Hurleyville, New York, the town where he was raised, honored him as a local hero. In 2013, his mural was unveiled at the Sullivan County Museum. Currey was impressed with the massive crowd at the celebration, which included a flyover by Black Hawk helicopters.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.