by Tim Lucas
World War II Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Wilburn Kirby Ross lives exactly where you might expect him to: in a little town with a rich military history called DuPont, Washington, a stone’s throw away from military installation Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Upon arriving at Ross’ home, I was greeted by a lively 91-year-old with a friendly handshake who readily invited me in. One of the first things I saw was the living room wall covered with awards, photos, and military memorabilia no average person would possess.
There’s one photo of Ross shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy. A signed photo of World War II General Alexander “Sandy” Patch also casually hangs on the wall. Another frame contains the official document changing the name of Highway 92 West near his childhood home of Strunk, Kentucky to Private Wilburn K. Ross Highway.
Then Ross tells me quite matter-of-fact that he will be featured on the cover of a U.S. Postage stamp sheet to be released on Veterans Day 2013.
Here is a man who is not only a huge part of military history, but of American history in any sense. And it’s because of the highest military honor attainable in the United States of America: the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The Medal of Honor isn’t given away lightly. Since the first one was given in 1863, only 3,463 persons have received this award. Though over 16 million people served in World War II, only 464 earned a Medal of Honor.
Today, there are 79 living Medal of Honor recipients, only nine of which are from World War II. Ross is one of those nine.
At the age of only 22, while a Private in Company G, 30th Infantry Regiment, 3d Infantry Division, Ross went above and beyond the call of duty and almost single-handedly saved his company from destruction.
Here’s Ross’ official Medal of Honor citation:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty near St. Jacques, France. At 11:30 a.m. on 30 October 1944, after his company had lost 55 out of 88 men in an attack on an entrenched, full-strength German company of elite mountain troops, Pvt. Ross placed his light machinegun 10 yards in advance of the foremost supporting riflemen in order to absorb the initial impact of an enemy counterattack. With machinegun and small-arms fire striking the earth near him, he fired with deadly effect on the assaulting force and repelled it. 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 machinegun alone, holding off 6 more German attacks. When the eighth assault was launched, most of his supporting riflemen were out of ammunition. They took positions in echelon behind Pvt. Ross and crawled up, during the attack, to extract a few rounds of ammunition from his machinegun ammunition belt. Pvt. Ross fought on virtually without assistance and, despite the fact that enemy grenadiers crawled to within 4 yards of his position in an effort to kill him with handgrenades, he again directed accurate and deadly fire on the hostile force and hurled it back. After expending his last rounds, Pvt. Ross was advised to withdraw to the company command post, together with 8 surviving riflemen, but, as more ammunition was expected, he declined to do so. The Germans launched their last all-out attack, converging their fire on Pvt. Ross in a desperate attempt to destroy the machinegun which stood between them and a decisive breakthrough. As his supporting riflemen fixed bayonets for a last-ditch stand, fresh ammunition arrived and was brought to Pvt. Ross just as the advance assault elements were about to swarm over his position. He opened murderous fire on the oncoming enemy; killed 40 and wounded 10 of the attacking force; broke the assault single-handedly, and forced the Germans to withdraw. Having killed or wounded at least 58 Germans in more than 5 hours of continuous combat and saved the remnants of his company from destruction, Pvt. Ross remained at his post that night and the following day for a total of 36 hours. His actions throughout this engagement were an inspiration to his comrades and maintained the high traditions of the military service.
It’s safe to say that if not for Ross, his entire company would have been slaughtered.
Although I had read the official citation, I wanted to find out the details surrounding this harrowing situation.
It turns out that Ross was ahead of the game from the beginning with a prescient sense of where to be. “I picked a place where I wanted to put the machinegun,” remembers Ross. “My platoon leader – after a long time – he finally said ‘Watch to your right!’ I said, ‘I’ve been firing to the right!’”
Ross continues, “I had one guy with me. Everyone he saw coming towards us, he said, ‘Oh that looks like our people.’ I said, ‘Man I’ve been shooting these dang guys.’”
These soldiers were in fact the enemy, and proved it by shooting a hole through the helmet, or “steel pot,” of the soldier Ross was standing by. The soldier was injured but not killed. Ross says, “I told him, ‘Don’t take your steel pot off because if they shoot these dang grenades in the tree there, it’ll come down and hit you in the top of the head.’”
This soldier that stood by Ross had a 30-caliber carbine rifle, but couldn’t use it because of his wounds. Ross took the rifle when he saw the enemy approaching. “There was about ten of them. I picked up that carbine…I was going to shoot those guys,” says Ross.
A German soldier aimed for Ross and fired. Amazingly, the German bullet hit Ross’ rifle instead of his body. “That dang guy in front of me – he shot and split the damn stock on that thing. I throwed that thing down and I had that machine gun pouring.”
From that point on, Ross manned his machinegun and became a human wall between these elite German soldiers and what remained of his company.
Ross remembers it clearly. His machine gun got so hot he would have to wait a few minutes whenever he had the chance, so the barrel could cool down. Then he would resume shooting.
During much of the incident, a soldier lay in a ditch directly in front, but below, Ross’ machine gun. Ross continually shot over the body. “I thought he was dead,” Ross says, “I shot over his head with that machinegun.”
But it turns out this soldier wasn’t dead. “He knew everything that went on,” says Ross, of this American lieutenant who, apparently, was taking mental notes of Ross’ actions the entire time.
This lieutenant later wrote up and submitted a description of Ross’ actions that day. And that report eventually led to Ross’ Medal of Honor.
I wanted to know what made someone act with this kind of bravery. To throw fear aside and get a job done, no matter the cost.
Are certain people genetically wired to withstand such stressful situations with cool confidence? Or did Ross’ upbringing make him especially equipped for this act of valor that October day in France?
At least with Ross, there’s a little of both at play.
“I did an awful lot of hunting and fishing,” says Ross of his childhood. He would hone his marksmanship by placing a match in the crook of a tree, backing up, and shooting just right as to light the match with the bullet from his .22 caliber rifle.
Indeed, sometimes his accuracy with a firearm was almost too good. “One time we’re at my cousin’s and they wanted to go down to the river and go fishing and stay the night,” Ross says.
Ross told his cousin to shine a light over his uncle’s cow pasture because they thought they saw a rabbit out there. Ross readied his .22 caliber rifle. “I laid it up on that post there and shot. And this other guy jumped over the fence went over there and said, ‘Yep, you got him, but he’s too heavy. I can’t carry him.’”
“I shot my uncle’s calf,” Ross says, laughing.
No doubt his childhood outdoor adventures helped keep him alive during the War. But Ross demonstrates another trait that helped him too: a cool, calm personality.
Despite what Hollywood might want you to believe, war heroes aren’t always like Stallone or Schwarzenegger, with brash personalities and muscles to spare. The person I encountered was quite different.
Ross, now 91, still possesses the slim physique he had in the mid 1940’s when he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Judging by photographs taken of Ross during this period, he probably didn’t weigh more than 140 pounds.
And his slow-burn personality seems to have kept him on the same emotional plane whether warding off the enemy for an intense five hours or attentively remaining at his post for another 31 hours.
Being a hero isn’t lacking fear, but rising above it. I asked Ross how he put down his fear. He almost laughs off the question. “I had to do something. If I didn’t do something they’d kill me.”
Despite the jovial answer, Ross proved the ability to forget the danger around him and do what is needed, regardless of the cost.
Ross stayed cool even when he sustained an injury in a small French town in September 1944, about a month before the actions that led to his Medal of Honor. He was on patrol with a fellow soldier, who Ross says never passed up a chance for an alcoholic beverage. The soldier entered a civilian home to fetch a drink and Ross accompanied him. Ross happened to look outside across a pond and said to the soldier, “You see them people over there? They’re shooting at our company.”
The other soldier, enjoying the drink, said, “Oh, they’re our men. You go see.” In no uncertain terms, Ross told that soldier that he should go see.
That’s when Ross was hit. “A piece of shrapnel hit me here,” Ross says, pointing to his cheek, “Knocked out two teeth. One upper and one lower. I spit those things out. I could run. I got back to where the company was.” Still collected, Ross found the field hospital and received the medical care he needed.
Truly, nothing seems to faze this guy.
Ross is one lucky guy.
He no doubt had more than a few guardian angels looking out for him during the War. The fact that he wasn’t killed many times over while earning his Medal of Honor is astounding enough. But that’s only part of the story.
Ross describes a separate incident when the enemy was firing rockets in his direction. “I was lying down. I had my steel pot on. But a big slug cut right through the steel and cut a hole in my head here. It knocked me out for six hours. When I was knocked out I thought I was a dang feather up there floating around.” When Ross came to, he walked out to safety.
In World War II and the Korean War, he was injured a total of four times.
Needless to say, not all of his fellow soldiers were as lucky as Ross. He recalls one friend who was wounded by gunfire. “He was on the ambulance. I made sure he didn’t fall off.” They arrived at the field hospital. Ross will never forget what happened next. Ross explains, “When the doctor come out there he says, ‘Uh-uh, too late for him.’”
Amazingly, Ross was never among the ones they couldn’t save.
As in any undertaking, being with A-players brings out the best in one’s performance. This was true with Ross. No fewer than four other soldiers in the 3d Infantry Division were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor with Ross on 14 April 1945 in a special ceremony.
To date, the 3d Infantry Division boasts more Medal of Honor recipients than any other Division in the Army, a total of fifty-one. Thirty-seven of those were earned during World War II.
Ross and the 3d Division fought in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, Germany and Austria; they were the only division to fight Germany on all fronts of the war. They lost more soldiers than any other American Division during World War II. Perhaps the most famous Medal of Honor winner ever, Audie Murphy, whose story was depicted in the Hollywood movie To Hell and Back was a soldier in the 3d Infantry Division.
Ross enjoys pulling a five-pound book off his shelf with the 3d Division’s blue-and-white-striped insignia on the cover. It’s a history of the Division’s actions during the War.
The first page of the book shows the Division’s path to victory in red arrows: landing in Casablanca, Morocco, advancing through North Africa, to Sicily and Italy, then taking Rome. Ross remembers he was told they would be in Rome until the end of the war.
Two weeks later, Ross got word that the Pope declared there should be no combat troops in Rome. That’s when the division went back to Naples to train for their amphibious invasion in southern France in August 1944. Shortly thereafter, near St. Jacques, France, Ross would earn his Medal of Honor.
The 3d Infantry Division made their way into Germany and captured Hitler’s mountain retreat before ending up in Salzburg, Austria in May 1945 as the war in Europe ended.
There’s no doubt that Ross’ Division was one of the most instrumental in ending Hitler’s reign of terror.
Although Ross had an amazing military career, it wasn’t exactly in his plans to join the Army. He started working in the coal mines at age 18, but he decided it wasn’t for him. After a year, he trained to be a welder. He went to Virginia for ship welding work. That’s when he got his draft notice.
“They sent me a message from Kentucky to go to the nearest place to check in…I didn’t do it,” recalls Ross. “Then they sent another that said, ‘If that’s too far away then come to this one!’” Ross obeyed this time, bypassing a trip home and joining the service from Virginia.
He wouldn’t go home to McCreary County, Kentucky until after the war.
But when he did return, there was a surprise waiting for him. A crowd of three thousand showed up to welcome the hero home at a special ceremony.
The Kentucky Governor and Attorney General were in attendance, as was World War I Medal of Honor recipient Alvin York. Still, in typical Ross style, he describes the event humbly. He recalls eating dinner at the ceremony, and decorated war hero York telling him, “There’s only one way to eat chicken, and that’s with your fingers.”
The Kentucky Governor set up a job for Ross at the state highway authority. Ross worked there for a year, but decided to rejoin the military when his brother and first cousin decided to join.
“They turned my first cousin down because he’s cross-eyed,” says Ross.
But Ross’ brother was accepted, as was Ross. By 1950, Ross was a Master Sergeant and found himself training at Fort Lewis, just before he was sent to Korea. While there, he was injured for the fourth and final time, by machinegun fire in August 1950. He was sent back to the United States for recovery.
Ross retired from the Army in the early 1960s after one of the most decorated careers in military history.
He married in 1960 and raised six kids, two of which still live close by and visit often. The others he sees when he goes home to Strunk, Kentucky every year on his birthday.
At 91, Ross is still self-sufficient. He lives in his own home, which, by the way, is very neatly kept. He comments that assisted living facilities call him frequently, asking him to move in. But Ross says it’s not necessary. “They want $4,500 a month,” says Ross, “I can stay here for less than that.” (And who would want to leave this home, a military history museum in its own right?)
Ross drives his car and goes out and about. He admits he’s a bit of a lead-foot.
“The state police are good to me,” says Ross, who has been pulled over recently. “One said, ‘You were speeding.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I was a little bit over the mark.’” Ross gave the officer a copy of some Medal of Honor literature that he always has handy. He didn’t receive a ticket.
He has a special Medal of Honor license plate, so sometimes he gets pulled over just so the officer can shake his hand.
Ross stays active, going to the local watering hole each week, where the band eagerly takes his requests. After all, when a Medal of Honor recipient requests a song, you play it. Ross always leaves a five-dollar tip anyway.
The town of DuPont is proud of its Medal of Honor recipient; residents can stretch out in Ross Plaza Park, a grassy oasis that’s situated in a recently developed part of town. A stone memorial with Ross’ official citation stands proud in the corner of the park.
The park is on the corner of Ross Loop and Ross Ave. But as Ross explains, these streets aren’t named after him, despite DuPont’s wishes to do so. When he moved to DuPont in the ’60s, there was a town police officer, of no relation, by the name of Ross. Wilburn Ross asked that these streets be named after this gentleman, not himself. Just another example of Ross’ humility.
Ross is often the guest of honor at local events and ceremonies and attends whenever he can. He carries around a stack of business cards detailing his most memorable moments, and enjoys sharing his stories with everyone who asks him about his life and accomplishments.
Ross will travel to Washington, D.C. for Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2013. He will be an honored guest as the U.S. Postal Service releases its World War II Medal of Honor commemorative stamp sheet.
The stamps themselves show the Army and Navy versions of the Medal of Honor. Ross’ photo will appear on the cover of the stamp sheet, along with 11 other Medal of Honor recipients’ photos.
Ross jokingly says he’ll sign quite a few books of stamps this Veteran’s Day.
Just like many of his other incredible life events, Ross takes this one in stride.
But none of the recognition – new or old – goes to Ross’ head. The fact that he’s met U.S. presidents and dignitaries, has landmarks named after him, and will be featured on a book of stamps doesn’t seem to boost his ego one bit.
In a time when reality TV stars are increasingly famous and big-headed for doing nothing, it’s refreshing to meet someone who is famous for doing something noteworthy, yet is humble.
Perhaps Ross’ attitude is just a characteristic of this generation, which Tom Brokaw called The Greatest Generation in his 1998 book. These men figured that fighting in World War II was just their duty. For doing it, they expected no repayment.
It’s summed up in a comment made by Bill Lansford, a Marine who fought on Iwo Jima, interviewed in Ken Burns’ 2007 documentary The War. “We’re characterized as heroes. But we weren’t heroes. We were just guys who were there and we did what we were supposed to do.”
That may be how they see themselves, but that’s not how we see them.
The Servicemembers of World War II did what they were supposed to do, and then so much more than anyone could ever expect. And Medal of Honor recipient Wilburn Kirby Ross is one of the finest examples of these heroes.
Here’s to many more years of recognition and honor for your distinguished service, Mr. Ross.