“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Medal of Honor didn’t exist because there were no wars and we could all live in peace?’’–Paul J. Wiedorfer, WWII Medal of Honor Recipient
Born July 17, 1921 in Baltimore, he was the last surviving WWII Medal of Honor recipient in Maryland and died at the age of 89 this past Wednesday from heart failure at Loch Raven Community Living and Rehabilitation Center.
Like so many of his countrymen, Mr. Wiedorfer didn’t seem the heroic type. He was working at a responsible job for Baltimore Gas & Electric in the early years of World War II, and, because it was a war industry, he didn’t go into the Army until 1943. He ended up in Europe, in the long, bloody slog to Germany that followed D-Day.
Assigned to Company G, 318th Infantry, 80th Division, his unit was part of General George S. Patton Jr.’s Third Army. They were sent in to rescue American troops who were trapped in Bastogne, Belgium; and on Christmas Day, 23 year-old Wiedorfer saw combat for the first time…
On Christmas Day 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, Mr. Wiedorfer’s platoon was ambushed in Belgium by two concealed German machine gun emplacements. Pinned down, helpless, the unit seemed in danger of suffering heavy casualties, when Mr. Wiedorfer took the initiative. “I was probably a little nuts when I did it,” he told the Baltimore Sun in an interview a half-century later. “But someone was going to die if something didn’t get done.” He ran as best he could across a 120-foot stretch of open, snow-covered ground toward the guns. “Miraculously escaping injury,” as his medal citation put it, he got to within 10 yards of the first machine gun nest, threw in a hand grenade, and shot and killed the three German soldiers manning the gun. He then attacked the other gun, killing one of its crew. Six more quickly surrendered to him.
Wiedorfer was given a battlefield promotion to sergeant that afternoon. Minutes later, he had to assume command when his platoon's leader and sergeant were wounded.
Less than two months later, in Germany, Mr. Wiedorfer was badly wounded by mortar fire. The soldier next to him, Pfc. Milton C. Smithers of Huntingdon, N.J., took the brunt of the explosion and was killed.
According to the Baltimore Sun:
Three days before V-E Day on May 8, 1945, Mr. Wiedorfer, who was 24, was recuperating at the 137th U.S. Army General Hospital in England from severe wounds he suffered in a mortar attack while crossing the Saar River earlier that year.
In the attack, a fellow infantryman near Mr. Wiedorfer, who was a staff sergeant, was killed instantly by an exploding mortar shell. Shrapnel ripped into Mr. Wiedorfer's stomach, broke his left leg and riddled his right. Two fingers on his right hand were seriously injured.
“That was Feb. 10, 1945. The sergeant's back was blown wide open, and he was dead when he hit the ground. I was just lucky, I guess,” he said in the 2008 interview. “I spent more than three years in hospitals recovering from those wounds.”
Another patient was reading Stars and Stripes when an item caught his eye, and he asked Mr. Wiedorfer, “How do you spell your name?”
“It really was funny,” he said in the 2008 interview. “I said, 'W-i-e-d-o-r-f-e-r,' and he said, 'You just got a medal.' I said was it the Bronze Star, and he said no, 'Congressional Medal of Honor.'
“To be perfectly honest with you, I wasn't really sure what the hell it was, because all I was was some dogface guy in the infantry,” he told the newspaper.
“All the officers and nurses were wearing their Class A uniforms and there was a band. Gen. E.F. Koening came into the ward and presented the medal,” he recalled. “I really was embarrassed by all the fuss.”
He was made to give a “little speech” and said he was so nervous because he had never given a speech before in his life (and apologized to the mayor for getting his name wrong).
Here is the full text of his Medal of Honor citation. In addition, Wiedorfer was also awarded 2 Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star.
A little more:
He separated from the military in 1947 as a master sergeant and was a power station operator with Baltimore Gas and Electric when he retired in 1981.
In the early 1990s, a man came to Mr. Wiedorfer’s home and offered to polish his Medal of Honor. The man took the authentic medal from its ceremonial shadow box and replaced it with an imitation. Mr. Wiedorfer’s stolen medal was returned to him in 1995. Stephen Pyne, who was charged with the theft, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Mr. Wiedorfer’s wife, the former Alice Stauffer, died in 2008. A daughter, Nancy Mazer, died in 2010.
Survivors include three children, Randee Wiedorfer of Parkville, Md., Paul J. Wiedorfer Jr. of Baltimore and Gary Wiedorfer of Cocoa, Fla.; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
As he aged, Mr. Wiedorfer said he prayed for the day there would be no living recipients of the Medal of Honor.
“Because,” he once said, “it will mean that we have learned to live in peace.”
Today, 84 recipients remain.
A former fetus, the “wordsmith from nantucket” was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1968. Adopted at birth, wordsmith grew up a military brat. He achieved his B.A. in English from the University of California, Los Angeles (graduating in the top 97% of his class), where he also competed rings for the UCLA mens gymnastics team. The events of 9/11 woke him from his political slumber and malaise. Currently a personal trainer and gymnastics coach.
The wordsmith has never been to Nantucket.