During the U.S. Army’s push toward Berlin in World War II, Maj. Gen. George Lafayette Mabry Jr. nearly single-handedly forced his way through enemy fortifications to clear an area of German forest for Allied troops. His valor and leadership made him one of the most decorated soldiers of the war, including having earned the Medal of Honor.
Mabry was born Sept. 14, 1917, in the little town of Stateburg outside Sumter, South Carolina. He had two brothers and a sister.
After high school, Mabry went to Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, where he majored in English and minored in psychology in the hopes of becoming a teacher. He also worked as a farm manager and played semi-pro baseball before graduating in June 1940. Everyone who attended the school was also required to be in ROTC, so when Mabry joined the Army, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
According to a Presbyterian College blog from 2020, Mabry later said that, while he didn’t become a teacher, his studies in psychology helped him deal with stressed out soldiers.
After training, Mabry was assigned to the newly activated 4th Infantry Division’s 8th Infantry Regiment. After about a year in the service, he married Eulena Myers. The pair went on to have a daughter and two sons, including one, George, who followed in his father’s footsteps and eventually became an Army officer.
D-Day, France & Germany
Mabry remained in the states until January 1944, when he was deployed to England. He and his 4th ID brethren took part in the D-Day landings on Utah Beach in Normandy on June 6. His valor that day earned him the Distinguished Service Cross and, later, a Silver Star.
Throughout the summer of 1944, the 4th ID pushed through occupied France, liberating towns along the way. By autumn, they and other Allied forces had made it to Germany’s western border, the Siegfried Line, which was fortified for hundreds of miles with minefields, foxholes and other obstacles that the Allies would spend months trying to breach.
One of those areas was the Hurtgen Forest near Schevenhutte, Germany. Army historians say the forest was tough to maneuver: it had 100-foot tall fir trees that were closely spaced, saturated ground and dramatic elevation changes. Tanks and other supply vehicles struggled to get through its narrow dirt roads and trails.
Early in November 1944, parts of the 4th ID were tasked with clearing the southern part of the forest. However, those troops weren’t able to penetrate enemy lines, so the rest of the division, including Mabry’s unit, were told to push east to make a clearing and secure about three miles worth of roads between towns.
It wasn’t an easy task.
On Nov. 20, then-Lt. Col. Mabry was commanding the 8th Infantry’s 2nd Battalion when they were attacked, and the forward elements of his battalion were immobilized by a minefield and heavy hostile fire. Mabry pushed forward alone through the minefield to set up a safe route for the rest of his soldiers.
He then moved ahead of his forwardmost scouts to personally lead the attack before he was stopped by razor wire laden with explosives. With help, Mabry disconnected the explosives and cut a path through the wire. When he got to the other side, he saw three enemy foxholes and captured their occupants using his bayonet.
Mabry kept moving forward and, racing ahead of his men again, found three log bunkers. The first bunker was deserted, so he pushed onto the second and was suddenly confronted by nine enemy soldiers. Mabry managed to take out one of them using the butt of his rifle and he bayonetted a second before his scouts joined him to neutralize the rest of the enemy soldiers.
With reinforcements by his side, Mabry then charged the third bunker — despite point-blank fire coming at him — and led the way inside to clear out its six enemy inhabitants.
Once that area was secure, Mabry led his battalion across 300 yards of fire-laden terrain to gain higher ground. There, they set up a defensive position that helped them take out the enemy on both flanks, giving them a solid foothold in the area. Within days, Mabry’s division had secured two roads and had taken the town of Grosshau.
The four-month Battle of Hurtgen Forest, while not well-known among World War II battles, cost the Army a lot. More than 33,000 men died or were wounded. The 4th ID, which spent about one month fighting there, suffered more than 6,000 casualties.
Four days after Mabry’s heroics, the 4th ID was relieved by another division. Two weeks later, however, they helped repel German troops during the Battle of the Bulge, the bloody campaign that was Germany’s last major stand of the war.
On Aug. 23, 1945, Mabry was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage and leadership during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. He received the honor from President Harry S. Truman during a White House ceremony. Two other soldiers who fought in the battle were awarded the Medal of Honor: 1st Lt. Bernard Ray and Pfc. Marcario Garcia.
After the war, Mabry decided to make a career out of the Army. He spent several nonconsecutive years serving in the Panama Canal Zone, where he helped establish the Army’s Jungle Warfare Training Center and, in the 1960s, was put in charge of developing and maintaining plans to protect and defend the canal.
Mabry spent time commanding troops in Korea after that conflict ended, and he also served two tours in Pentagon positions. In 1966, Mabry was selected to head a team to study combat effectiveness in Vietnam before becoming the commanding general of the Army Combat Developments Experimentation Command at Fort Ord, California.
In April 1969, after he’d attained the rank of major general, Mabry returned to Vietnam. While there, he had to deal with an incident involving a murder cover-up by a number of Green Berets. Mabry was the general court martial convening authority at the time and had decided to move forward with prosecuting the men involved. However, the case was eventually derailed by politics and a lack of cooperation by various parties involved, and the charges were dismissed.
In December 1970, Mabry left Vietnam and returned to the Panama Canal Zone one more time to head U.S. Army Southern Command. In January 1975, he took the reins of Army Readiness Region V at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, his final assignment before retiring in August 1975.
Mabry returned home to South Carolina and settled in Columbia, where he was active in the community, especially among youth and veterans’ groups. He often spoke publicly about his time in World War II and other military-related events.
Mabry died July 13, 1990, of prostate cancer that had spread, one of his sons told the New York Times. He is buried in Holy Cross Episcopal Church Cemetery in Statesboro, South Carolina.
Mabry’s name is well-known among soldiers and South Carolinians today. At Fort Carson, Colorado, a mile-long obstacle course is called the Mabry Mile in his honor. In 2016, a new headquarters building at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, was named for him, as was a memorial highway that runs through the county of his birth.
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.