While the Invasion of Normandy was the beginning of the end of the Nazi regime in Europe, the Battle of Aachen further solidified that. Aachen was the first major Germany city to fall to Allied forces during World War II — due in large part to the actions of young Army Capt. James Burt.
Burt was born in Massachusetts in July 1917 and, at 22, he graduated from Norwich University, the nation’s oldest private military college and the birthplace of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
The new graduate was commissioned into the Army as a second lieutenant and began active duty in 1941, as U.S. concern over World War II was increasing.
Once the U.S. entered the war, Burt took part in major campaigns over the next few years in North Africa, Sicily and at D-Day, but he earned his Medal of Honor during the Battle of Aachen.
In September 1944, the U.S. Army pushed across Germany’s Siegfried Line along Germany’s western border near Aachen, the country’s westernmost city, which borders Belgium and the Netherlands.
The battle for the city lasted a little more than a month. On Oct. 13, Burt was commanding Company B of the 66th Armored Regiment, 2nd Armored Division in Wurselen, just north of Aachen. They were part of a coordinated attack to surround the Germans hunkered down inside the city.
On the first day of the mission, U.S. infantrymen were heavily bombarded by gunfire. Burt, who was in a tank about 200 yards behind them, calmly got out, walked in front of the infantrymen through a hail of gunfire, and waved his tanks into good firing positions.
He eventually got back on his tank and directed fire from its rear deck before being wounded. But even then, he didn’t run for cover. He stayed in position out in the open until artillery knocked those weapons out, and he was able to move his tanks forward. The next day, Burt left his cover to help a wounded battalion commander 75 yards away.
For the next eight days, through miserable rain and heavy shelling, Burt held the combined forces together, ”dominating and controlling the critical situation through the sheer force of his heroic example,” according to the award citation.
At one point, Burt took his tanks 300 yards into enemy territory, dismounted and then stayed on the ground for an hour to direct artillery fire. He went into enemy territory twice more that day for reconnaissance. Even when two tanks he was in were knocked out by the enemy, he hopped onto a third and pushed onward.
Despite the wounds he suffered, Burt continued to rescue wounded soldiers at great personal risk. He also continued to destroy enemy personnel and equipment.
The Battle of Aachen was bitter, and the conditions were awful. But Burt’s courage and leadership served as a rallying point for his soldiers and others.
The capture of Aachen psychologically crushed the Germans and gave U.S. troops hope that the end of the war was in sight.
For his courage under fire, Burt received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman on Oct. 12, 1945, along with several other men.
After the war, Burt returned to civilian life. After a career in the paper industry, he earned a master’s degree in education from New Hampshire’s Keene State College in 1969 and worked as a mathematics and business instructor at Franklin Pierce College, also in New Hampshire.
He continued to be active with Norwich University throughout his life. In 1990, the university dedicated James M. Burt Drive near the Plumley Armory in his honor.
Burt had four children with his first wife, Edythe, whom he married during the war. He remarried in 1976. He died in February 2006 in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, at the age of 88.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Source: Department of Defense