As a member of the 90th Infantry Division, John Hawk of Bremerton, Wash., received the Congressional Medal of Honor, which was personally presented to him by President Harry S. Truman.
©2014, Aaron Elson
Omaha, Neb., Sept. 27, 1996
Aaron Elson: Did you grow up in Washington State?
John Hawk: I spent most of my life there. I was born in San Francisco. My dad was a World War I GI student. They had a GI Bill after World War I. He went to engineering school in San Francisco. My mother was going to Mills College, she was from eastern Washington, she was a farmerís daughter up there. I had one sister born in Oakland and one in Sausalito and I was born right in San Francisco.
Aaron Elson: Did your dad ever talk about World War I?
John Hawk: Not very much. He was an artilleryman. And then after the war was over, he was still in the Army and was over on Corregidor and Bataan, in the field artillery. He had pictures of those big disappearing guns, big mortars, that raise up out of the fort and fire and then go back down. He had gotten into photography, too, and he developed a way of taking pictures of their target shooting and calibrating it so that they didnít have to estimate how close they were.
Aaron Elson: How old were you when you went into the service?
John Hawk: Nineteen. My birthdayís on the 30th of May. In my senior year of high school, they gave us a 4A classification in the draft. So as soon as we finished school, I think I got my notice two weeks later. I had just turned 19. So I was just 21 when I got out. When I got home I was 20. Harry put the medal on me on the 20th of June, and I had been 21 on the 30th of May.
Aaron Elson: You went in after Hill 122?
John Hawk: Yes. They were recuperating and regrouping, and I was among the first replacements that they sent over. We had a nice way to get over there. We were up in South Wales, weíd been over for about a week. We went over on the Wakefield, which was the old liner Manhattan, and they carried, what, the Queen [Mary] carried eight thousand, that thing carried six thousand, eight days from Boston to Liverpool. I mean, Zoom! We didnít waste any time. We started off out of Boston, it was funny, zigzagging, back and forth and round and round, and pretty soon the scuttlebutt was that they had picked up a submarine behind us. All of a sudden no zig, no zag, no nothing, you could just feel her winding up and going. And they said at the speed we went there wasnít a submarine in the world that could catch us unless we ran over it. So we made it in eight days, and spent five or six days in Wales wandering around in the rain. Then they had just finished laying an airstrip down on the beach, they just poured a blacktop strip right on the beach, and they were flying hospital planes over there, old C-47s, and somebody said, "Why are we going to all the trouble to load these guys on a ship and take them across and get them seasick?" So they put seventeen enlisted men and one officer replacement on each plane. And when they landed on the beach, they opened the doors on one side and we got out and on the other side they loaded the wounded in. Never shut off their motors. Turned around and went back. So we flew across the channel and then we just started walking. We walked for about a half a day and we were at the front.
- - - -
John Hawk: This of course is my prize picture.
Aaron Elson: Thatís Truman pinning the Medal of Honor on you?
John Hawk: Yes. And I got him to come to me.
Aaron Elson: How did you do that?
John Hawk: Well, I knew a senator, and I said I wouldnít go to Washington. He would have to come to my Washington. So thatís on the state capitol steps.
Aaron Elson: Now, those three stripes, you were a sergeant?
John Hawk: I was a buck sergeant. Squad leader. Machine gun section.
Aaron Elson: What happened to the rest of your squad?
John Hawk: Well, this guy here (pointing to a photo), he got bad hit in the shoulder, they were trying to take a pillbox. This little guyís name was McDonald, another sergeant I saw later said he got picked off by a sniper when they got clear up to Czechoslovakia. This little guyís name is Frank Lacrosse, he was there when I got there and he was there when I left and as I understood, he went clear through the whole thing and was never hit once. I had one machine gun section and he had the other. And then whenever we would lose one of the other sergeants, Iíd have either both sections or the platoon. Then weíd get replacements. This is a hungry, mean looking bugger, huh?
Aaron Elson: Whoís that?
John Hawk: Thatís me. We were loaded down with so much stuff, as squad leader, I had to carry a pair of wire cutters. A shovel. I had to carry an M-1 because we needed to be sure somebody had a grenade launcher. I always carried a couple of first aid kits. Enough goddamn ammunition.
Aaron Elson: How many hand grenades?
John Hawk: Usually, depending on what we were doing, I didnít carry any. They were too heavy. When you went into an assault youíd pick up a few from one of the jeeps, but as soon as we got done and had to move out, you got rid of the goddamn things, they were way too heavy.
Thereís little Mac, I always remember, he was my foxhole buddy, the two of us.
Aaron Elson: What was his name?
John Hawk: His name was McDonald. He was from up in Minnesota or Wisconsin somewhere, and I remember that he had a strikingly beautiful wife and a little boy, he carried their pictures.
Aaron Elson: And what happened to him?
John Hawk: He got picked off by a sniper.
Aaron Elson: In Czechoslovakia.
John Hawk: Yeah, at the very end. So thatís Mac, he got killed later. (Looking at other people in the snapshot) He got badly wounded. And got killed at Dillingen. I know he was badly wounded in the shoulder. But these are our other two sergeants, Getland and Vibey. I know Vibeyís dead, I think maybe Getland is. These were taken about the 12th of December. This was before we crossed the Saar River.
Aaron Elson: Were you back with them by then?
John Hawk: Oh yeah. That was just the last time I got knocked out.
Aaron Elson: The 12th of December?
John Hawk: Yeah. A couple of days later, I lost all the dates after that up until I started recovering in the hospital later.
Aaron Elson: How many times were you wounded?
John Hawk: Four times.
Aaron Elson: The first time was in Normandy?
John Hawk: The first time was at the Falaise Gap, where I got the medal. I was shot through the leg, but it didnít stop me. They gave me some rest, and they said I could go to the hospital or stay with the company, so I stayed with the company. That was August 20th. And then in November I got a couple of pieces of shrapnel. Then the record has twice more from that time there and I donít remember the circumstances.
Aaron Elson: Now, did I see a bunch of tattoos on your arms?
John Hawk: Just one.
Aaron Elson: How did you get the tattoo?
John Hawk: Oh, I got that when I was a kid. I wanted to see if it would make my girlfriend mad and it did. Her nameís grown over since.
Aaron Elson: Her name was on it?
John Hawk: Her name was right there. The gal I married, that wasnít her name, and I told her once, "For a dollar I can get them to ink that over. Do you want me to do it?"
She said, "Give me the dollar. I got what I want."
She took the dollar and left the name on.
Aaron Elson: What was your wifeís name?
John Hawk: My wifeís name was Madeline, and that one happened to be Dorothy.
Aaron Elson: Do you have children?
John Hawk: Two. We had three, we lost, our first one was killed by a car when he was six years old. On the way to school. Thatís a bad scene. Especially if you happen to be a schoolteacher yourself.
Aaron Elson: Was your wife a schoolteacher?
John Hawk: No, I was.
Aaron Elson: I didnít know that.
John Hawk: Yeah. Oh, I got home out of the Army and, boy, you think war is hell, try going to college when youíre beat up mentally and physically, not too smart to start with, didnít pay much attention in high school. Sweating and worrying about trying to be a romeo and a bread winner and a student all at the same time. I pretty near failed at all three. I wasnít gonna get married because I didnít think I could support the girl. I finally had this one tremendous stroke of intelligence -- I donít have many -- and married the girl. I held out for three years, but then she finally said, "Go ahead and do it."
Aaron Elson: What did you wind up teaching?
John Hawk: Elementary school. Fifth and sixth grade. I took a degree in biology. Then I have minors in history and English and geography. I wasnít intending to teach. I was going to teach high school, but there were no openings at the time and I was qualified to teach [elementary school]. I tell you, I did a little ratting around before I figured out how to teach reading. I spent six years just as a classroom teacher, and then for nine years I taught full time and ran the school, too, as a teaching principal. And then the last years I was just a principal.
I struggled, God, it took me over six years to get four full years in. I eventually got in the equivalent of six and a half, seven years. God, that was hard. I could do the daily stuff and everything, but math was hard for me. I couldnít retain the math. But I did real well on the natural science, on the biology. Plants and animals. History and geography I liked, too, so I did that. I had a language deficiency, so instead of taking a foreign language I took so much English I finally ended up with a minor in that.
Aaron Elson: Who were your favorite authors?
John Hawk: I like the kind of the historical novels, even what other people considered horrible ones like "Moby Dick," and those. I like different kinds of writing, and some of them of course that everybody else thought were great I didnít think were worth the trouble, so it was funny that way. I just took that because the only thing they taught when I was in high school were Latin and Spanish and I wasnít interested in either one, and I got to college, and of course in those days they said, "If youíre going to take a science course you have to have German."
I didnít get along well with the German teacher. And oh, God, was she a German teacher. She was a little spare, kind of spindly gal, always wore a grey knit suit. Her name was Saarlautern. And sheís got her hair pulled back and everything.
I had to take some of it. So I was working away at it and I wasnít doing that well. Finally, I did some German for her. She says, "You seem to understand it, but you donít speak it or work at it very well."
And I said, "Thatís probably right."
And she said, "But German is a beautiful language."
And I wasnít feeling that good and I said, "Well, the last time I heard your beautiful language, the people that were speaking it and I were busy killing each other."
She said, "You donít think German is a beautiful language?"
And I said, "No."
And she said, "Then why are you taking it?"
And I said, "Because Iím required to, and thatís the only reason." And I could see "D" written in both eyes.
Anyhow, she told me later that one of the people in the class, I was going to the University of Washington, finally came up and told her later who I was and about my record. And she said, "I can understand what happened. Maybe he doesnít think that much of the language, it would probably be hard for him to learn."
I told her later, "Well, the last time I got shot I probably forgot all of it." But I struggled and struggled, and finally I married my girlfriend and that took care of breadwinner and romeo, and I think the Veterans Administration and the university got together and said if somebody doesnít pass this sucker heís gonna be here the rest of his life. Give him a C, will you?
Aaron Elson: Which university was that?
John Hawk: The University of Washington, Seattle. I had started in the university, I made the first year, just barely, and I mean it was tough. I wasnít well enough when I first got home, so they wouldnít let me go to work or anything. I kept saying I have to do something. Well, if you do the wrong thing weíll throw you in the hospital, howís that? Thatís the ultimate threat.
Aaron Elson: What was the nature of your last set of wounds?
John Hawk: Concussion and combat fatigue. Between the blast that I got and the fatigue, I broke down.
Aaron Elson: How would you describe having broken down?
John Hawk: I was being literally carried out, and I just shut everything down. I didnít communicate. I didnít respond very well. I did what I was told but I wasnít responding.
Aaron Elson: Were you aware that you were not responding?
John Hawk: I just wasnít gonna do it anymore. I said Iíve had all I can take. Seeing the last couple of guys go, and then ending up like that myself. That was it.
Aaron Elson: And the concussion was from?
John Hawk: One of those big railway guns. Blew up in the bank underneath me. Blew me they said about 90 feet. And no open wounds, just bruised inside, I couldnít drink any water, I couldnít take any food. It all came up. You last a day or two like that and then you fall down. And they were trying to figure out what it was and they couldnít. For a while they couldnít find any open wounds, but then of course the bruising started showing, and they got word back from a couple of people that had been around, some other guys were wounded, they said "What happened to him?"
So we got that straightened out. And I came out of it once I got back. They were feeding me through my veins. Eventually I got to where I could take on some food. And once I got some strength back, I was able to come out of the mental problems. They put me on limited duty, and I went to work for a base post office in Paris.
Iíd been there I donít know, six weeks, two months maybe, Iím very unclear on lot of this, I went from day to day and did everything but it didnít stick, memory-wise. And then they came up with the point system. They finally decided you canít leave men in combat forever, they start breaking down. And of course here Iím with this post office outfit, and a lot of those guys had been overseas longer than Iíd been in the Army almost, theyíd started off in Africa, and then they transferred them into the Normandy thing and then they finally set up in Paris. It was a big outfit, there were 800 men. But they came up with the points, and you got points for months in combat, and you got points for months overseas and points for being wounded and everything, so here I had the combat badge and four Purple Hearts and three campaigns and six months up front. So when they count up the points Iím the first guy in the post office to get to go home on rest and recuperation. Well, that was fine. They sent us up from Paris up to Le Havre and we waited up there in the ports for a ship to England, and while we were there was when President Roosevelt died. And then we got a ship from England over to New York, and they put us on a troop train the next day and headed for the West Coast, and we were in Minneapolis-St. Paul when VE Day was declared.
We got through that, we finally got out of there, managed to get the train on the tracks and get home. I got home on the 10th of May, and my 21st birthday was on the 30th. In the middle of June, Iím about halfway through this furlough, and they finally caught up with me from Fort Lewis and dragged me down to tell me that Iíd received the medal. Of course, at first I didnít believe it, I thought somebody was bulling me. And they said, "No, we wouldnít kid about that."
So I said, "Okay, what for?"
And the guy says, "Iím real sorry. I canít tell you what for. All I can tell you is that we have the order that says you got one."
And I said, "Well, thanks a lot. Youíd better find out pretty quick."
So they did.
When it came time to make the presentation of the medal, they told me they were going to send me to Washington, D.C., and I could take two people.
I said, "Oh?"
And they said, "On a train."
I said, "What? You mean you canít fly one guy?"
Of course, I was single as hell, and my parents had been divorced during the war.
Aaron Elson: Really?
John Hawk: Oh yeah. Well, theyíd stuck together until my two sisters and I were on our own, and then they went their different directions, which Iíve always admired them for. They stuck it out, so there was always a family and a home there, and once we were on our own, they went their separate ways.
So I stopped by the state capitol, and I knew Senator Warren Magnuson, who was a ranking senator even at that time. I had grown up with him on Bainbridge Island and he had his home there. I met him while I was in high school. And he called me up and said, "Stop by, I want to say hello to you."
So I visited him and he said, "Where are they going to present the medal?"
And I told him what kind of trouble I was in, the Army was getting mad at me. He said, "By golly, Iíve been looking for some way to get that guy up here." Heís talking about Harry Truman. He had served in the Senate with him. Security was fierce. You had to have a reason. So he said, "Now Iíve got a reason." So Truman was coming to the West Coast for the San Francisco Conference when they decided what to do about Japan, and he got him to come up and he was there for two days and a night, and on one day we had the ceremony. It was great. I had my family in, my father, and my fianceeís mother and sister and all the relatives were there. God, they had a bunch of schoolkids there, and about half of Fort Lewis.
It really meant a lot to me. My dad was a World War I artilleryman from Kansas, as was Harry. So once I got the two of them together talking, I kind of backed off, because I was about ready to break and run. I was really feeling very, very badly about me receiving a medal and with the serious memories of all the friends Iíd lost. In six months you lose so many machine gunners it isnít even funny. So that worked out well. I got that off my back. And then trying to go to school, I wasnít feeling well enough, and they were afraid if I put myself under pressure Iíd have a relapse of the fatigue thing. So they said, "Youíve got to find something to do, but you canít take on anything like going to the university."
So I said, "Iíll do it anyhow."
And they said, "You go ahead, weíll throw you in the hospital," and thatís the ultimate threat, to a guyís thatís been there. So I went back to high school. I had graduated, but I thought, well, knowing my shortcomings I might be able to pick up some of the things that I didnít have, the language and the math.
They were terribly short of teachers at my old high school, and of course kids that had been freshmen when I left were still there. I was gone exactly two years. So I took another year of high school. Actually I ended up most of the time helping the teachers.
Then I tried the university and boy, that first year, oh man, I struggled. Lousy grades.
I took that summer off, went back in the fall and I got sick. I had to drop out. That was the first time. I had to drop out twice before I got done, but I went over to Bremerton and stayed with my dad, they had a junior college there. It was a totally different situation, with twelve, thirteen people in a class, you knew everybody. I had to do something or I was going to lose it altogether. They said, "Well, why donít you try this? Just take a couple of courses." So I did. I took almost two years of credits there and hell, I had a 3.85 grade point average there, compared to my 1.5 at the U of W.
I finally had to go back to the U. The first quarter I went back there I only took two courses and got two Dís. So I took some time off again and went back later, and I struggled through. I was trying to take a course that was too hard for me. I was trying to take their fisheries course, which is one of the best in the world, but the competition was just fierce.
The problem that I ran into was that our generous government, after beating up the people in the Pacific, said, "Weíre gonna help you recover. Send us some of your best students and weíll give them the training." The thing about the fisheries was, they werenít distinguishing the different branches of it. They wanted you to be a chemist and an engineer and a biologist. I couldnít handle the math that was involved in the chemistry and the engineering. The natural science things I did fine on. So finally, I just couldnít make it. I switched over to arts and sciences, and took my degree in biology.
Then, for want of a better thing to do, while I was up at Becket High School they kept saying, "Youíd make a good teacher." Teachers were always leaving me with the class. Especially in science, geography and history. So they said, "You should really try that." So that was what I did.
In the meantime, I had found a part time job at home. In fact, I worked part time in a Ford garage for almost ten years. The guy said, "Thatís the longest time anybodyís ever worked here." I worked weekends and vacations and stuff like that.
Aaron Elson: Doing what?
John Hawk: I was either a parts chaser, or I ran the wash rack, or I did undersealing. I used to come home from college, go home and change my clothes and go back down to the garage and underseal cars till midnight, and then get up and catch the ferryboat back the next morning.
Aaron Elson: You had to take a ferry?
John Hawk: Yes. From Bremerton to Seattle. Itís about an hour ferry ride. Then you take the bus out to the university. Youíd catch a ferryboat at 6 oíclock in the morning so you can make an 8 oíclock class. Then you didnít get home until 6 oíclock at night.
I finally managed to survive it and got started teaching. I retired in 1983, after 31 years.
Aaron Elson: Tell me about when your child was killed.
John Hawk: I was teaching school at the time, and I would look out at all these kids there. When he was six and a half, he was on his way to kindergarten. He and two other kids, and it looked like the car came on the shoulder, and he didnít get out of the way quick enough. We had the daughter at the time, three and a half. That was a, thatís a bad, bad, bad thing. A gal that was impaired, shouldnít have been driving a car. She died within a year. It affected her, too.
Aaron Elson: Did she start drinking heavily afterward?
John Hawk: No, she didnít drink. She just faded away. She was partly deaf and had impaired vision. She really shouldnít have been driving a car. She went into shock so bad that she pulled the kid onto the side of the road and got into her car and drove away. Somebody followed her and stopped her within a mile or so. It was about as bad a scene as you can get. I thought I was gonna lose the wife, too. My wife and my dad. I had a tough time with them. My wife was one of those people that was very, very caring, and my dad, he had several grandchildren, but that was his favorite one. They had been very, very close. So that was hard for him. Of all the things that should happen to somebody.
Aaron Elson: Then you had one child after that?
John Hawk: Yeah. About three years later I convinced her we shouldnít be raising one. First she said, "Forget it, Iíve had my boy." And boy, that puts you down, what do you say then? I finally convinced her. Anyhow, of course then, going through all the different things and then losing the wife suddenly.
Aaron Elson: How did she pass away?
John Hawk: Heart attack. She started to get up one morning and just didnít make it. No warning. No previous history, just a massive coronary. Thatís the way to go, I guess, but what a shock.
Aaron Elson: Thatís eleven years ago?
John Hawk: Eleven years ago this November. Iíd just been retired two years and was remodeling the house for her, and had it almost finished. Everything but the roof, Iíd remodeled the house completely inside.
Aaron Elson: And she would have been about late fifties, fifty-eight?
John Hawk: She was fifty-seven. Talk about compounding tragedies, our daughterís wedding was two weeks after the funeral.
- - - -
John Hawk: At Chambois, the Germans, they threw everything they had in there, because they were trying to break a hole, and they couldnít get out of the Falaise Gap. Thatís where I got into it. We had a place there that we had a stream, and a big ditch, and they couldnít get across it and our tank destroyers couldnít get across it. And the road ran down like this out in front. And so they kept breaking across this field, and we were in an orchard, and theyíd come into the orchard and they blew the hell out of us. And our tank destroyers couldnít see them.
I got chased out of there about three times. They ran over the machine gun once. Hit another one with a shell. I went back and put one machine gun together out of two. Then they came over and chased us out again. And weíd shoot off their infantry. Then theyíre blind, so theyíd back off.
Aaron Elson: And they had tanks?
John Hawk: Yeah. Big Tiger Royals. Where I was, I could see two of them. I could see our tank destroyers and I could see the Tiger Royals, but they couldnít see each other. And we were back screaming at the tank destroyers, "Get those guys off our back!" And they said, "We canít shoot Ďem if we canít see Ďem."
So I said, since I can see both of them, Iíll get out in the middle and line it up. You fire, and Iíll give you a correction, maybe we can get them. So we started doing that. And it worked. See, they always parked them in the bushes or behind a building, one of those little old stone buildings, you could put an armor-piercing shell right through it. And hell, there were three tanks there. I know they knocked two of them clear out, and they damaged another one. And the others that were there started backing off. So that worked so good that we started blind-firing into the buildings, and of course that was where they had taken refuge and we started knocking buildings down and boy, the white flags came up. We took probably 500 prisoners there in a couple hours, they just came right across the field. Weíd just disarm them and send them back.
Just before the last of that was when I was hiding behind an apple tree, and they machine gunned me through the apple tree.
I was hit once, in the leg. And I think the tank was trying to run over me. The bullet had knocked me down. It was like getting hit with a sledgehammer. I didnít know whether Iíd broken a leg or what.
Aaron Elson: That was a tank coming at you?
John Hawk: Yeah. It was as close as right across the room. I thought, "Either Iíve got a broken leg or I can run like hell," and I tore out of there like you wouldnít believe.
Aaron Elson: With the bullet in your leg?
John Hawk: It had gone through the apple tree and was bent. It went right around the bone. Didnít break any serious nerves or blood vessels. And with my running around to get away from the damn thing, when I finally went back to the medics, he takes a probe and goes in there, "Thereís no bullet in there." Oh, boy. Hot dog, you know, ye gods. The medic went and looked down in the cuff of my pants where they were stuck in my boots, and thereís the bullet. It had t worked back out the same way it went in, with all this running around. He puts a big patch on my leg and says "How come youíre still walking?"
And I said, "Iíve been walking and running."
He says, "Keep on doing it. Do you want to go to the hospital?"
I said, "No." Things had pretty well stopped. They were just rounding up. So we had three or four days rest, and I kept moving. They checked it every day.
Aaron Elson: What kind of a tank was it that was coming at you?
John Hawk: A Tiger Royal.
Aaron Elson: And was it a machine gun bullet from the tank?
John Hawk: Yes. I donít know why they didnít just shoot again. Maybe they were saving ammunition or werenít gonna waste a bullet on one guy. I think they had it figured they were gonna mash me there anyhow. But I tore out of there and went back, I ran around, this is, itís funny but itís not funny: When I took off I went around a building and fell right over the back of another tank. I absolutely ran into that damn thing. Knocked me flatter than a pancake again. Iím rolling around on the ground. I look up and thereís a German standing up in the turret. To this day, I would give anything, I almost wished I hadnít killed him so I could find out what he thought, this crazy American attacking his tank with his body, because I did, I hit that thing, I bet you it made a clang you could hear for a mile. But I was still carrying my rifle. I looked up and shot him and he went plunk, down in the tank. And I took off again. Well, hereís this tank and a couple more right behind me. And Iím headed for the tank destroyers, and I mean Iím moving. This tank guy says, "You got about forty feet from this ditch and you just kind of leveled out and went zip." And they started firing, of course these tanks came around the corner, and I know you canít fire them automatically but they were, and of course Iím down in the ditch and every time the damn thing went off, it deafened you. They knocked out two of them and the other one got the hell out of there, and that was the end of it. No more tanks came across. Thatís when the surrender started.
- - - -
Order "A Mile in Their Shoes" from amazon.com