Military and Defense

Medal of Honor Monday: Army Tech. Sgt. Charles MacGillivary

During the last frigid winter of World War II, Army Tech. Sgt. Charles Andrew MacGillivary and his company found themselves pinned down by Germans for weeks. To break out of the bleak situation, MacGillivary singlehandedly took out several enemy positions, despite suffering serious wounds. His leadership and bravery during a pivotal moment of the war earned him the Medal of Honor. 

MacGillivary was born in Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, Canada, on Jan. 7, 1917. He moved to the U.S. in 1933 at the age of 16 to live with his brother in Boston. The younger MacGillivary joined the Merchant Marine and spent the next several years sailing across the North Atlantic on various ships. However, once World War II began in Europe, the Atlantic grew more dangerous for ships due to the threat of German submarines torpedoing them, so he was ready to make a change.  

Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, MacGillivary joined the Army. In 1999, when testifying in front of the U.S. Senate immigration subcommittee, he said that when recruiters learned he’d worked in the Merchant Marine, the Navy tried to sign him. But he wanted to be back on land again, so he continued his path with the Army.  

Two weeks into signing up, MacGillivary said he was at Fort Devons, Massachusetts, when he was offered U.S. citizenship. Of course, he took it.  

After basic training, MacGillivary joined the 71st Infantry Regiment, 44th Infantry Division, and they were sent to Scotland to train alongside British commandos. MacGillivary took part in the Invasion of Normandy that began June 6, 1944, landing on Omaha Beach.  

By mid-December, the 44th had pushed its way through France to the town of Woelfing, along the German border. That’s where they found themselves when Adolf Hitler launched the Battle of the Bulge, a surprise counterattack that was Germany’s last major attempt to defeat the Allies.  

On. Dec. 17, 1944, MacGillivary was a platoon sergeant for the 463rd Battalion’s Company I when they became pinned down by the German 17th Panzer Division, which killed his commander and lieutenant, leaving him as the highest-ranking soldier in the group. He quickly took charge of the company, which continued to hold the line for as long as it could.  

However, the weather was frigid, which diminished their ability to restock supplies. MacGillivary said that by Christmas Day, they were eating frozen oatmeal. Within days, he said they were almost completely out of ammunition and food. The Germans were promising his men food if they surrendered. MacGillivary said many considered it, so he had to remind them that there was nothing to surrender to and that they needed to keep fighting.  

On Jan. 1, 1945, enemy elements finally broke through the line and attacked. MacGillivary knew where the enemy machine gun positions were, so he volunteered to take them out while another company closed in from another angle to assault other strongpoints.  

“As the head of my company, I had a duty to do something. I decided to try to knock out some of the German machine guns that surrounded us,” he told the Senate subcommittee. “I thought that this was the only way we were going to get out.” 

MacGillivary crept up on the first machine gun emplacement, circling through woods and snow to get there. He shot two camouflaged gunners from a few feet away, causing the position’s other enemy forces to withdraw.  

He pushed on, using any cover he could find to stalk the enemy to find another one of its machine guns, blasting its crew with a grenade. Picking up a submachine gun from the battlefield, MacGillivary then made it to within 10 yards of another machine gun before being spotted. The crewmen at that position quickly tried to swing their weapon around to take him out, but they weren’t fast enough. The young sergeant charged them, jumping into their midst and killing them all with several bursts of his gun.  

From there, MacGillivary crept, crawled and rushed from tree to tree until he got close enough to another machine gun nest to toss a grenade into it. The blast killed the crew inside, but MacGillivary was also seriously injured, having been shot by the machine gun in the chest, leg and arm.  

“It took part of my arm off,” he told the Senate subcommittee in 1999. “The only thing that saved me was the snow. I froze in the snow. If I had gotten hit in the South Pacific, I would have bled to death.” 

MacGillivary said that some Frenchmen picked him up and began taking him somewhere. At first, he thought he’d been captured, but he said he realized otherwise when a chaplain told him they were taking him back to an aid station. Once he was treated there, he was taken to Marseille, then transported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. MacGillivary’s arm couldn’t be saved, but he made a full recovery otherwise.  

MacGillivary took out four enemy machine guns during his one-man fight, disregarding his own safety to help his fellow soldiers continue the fight with minimum casualties. For his bravery, he received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman during a White House ceremony on Aug. 23, 1945. Twenty-eight other veterans also received the medal that day.  

“I was very honored to have been included among so many distinguished recipients,” MacGillivary said in 1999. “I was also very proud that I, as an immigrant, had been selected to receive this award.” 

MacGillivary returned to Boston after the ceremony and married his girlfriend, Ester, who had waited for him during the war. They eventually settled in Braintree, just south of Boston, and had three daughters. 

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, MacGillivary worked as a special agent for the Customs Bureau, which is now U.S. Customs and Border Protection, from about 1950 to 1975. He remained active in veterans’ organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and AMVETS. He was the president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society for two years in the 70s and spearheaded efforts to locate other immigrant recipients of the nation’s highest medal for valor.  

MacGillivary died on June 24, 2000, from stroke-related complications, his family said. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  


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

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Katie Lange

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