The Eight Toughest Soldiers Texas Ever Produced (Featuring Heroism, Betrayal & Many Dead Bodies)
Our war heroes are presented to us in different varieties. There are those we create for ourselves, in the mold of what we think a hero should be: David Crockett (nobody but Walt Disney called him Davy), astride the ramparts at the Alamo going to a hero's death while clubbing those craven Mexican soldiers with the butt of his rifle. All crap, but cut from the finest Texas crap.
Then there are the Walmart brand-name of heroes, those created by our own government, purely for propaganda. Think of the crew of The Memphis Belle. No doubting their bravery, but the government cooked their accomplishments because they needed heroes at that stage of the WW II bombing campaign, which wasn't going well at all.
The same was done -- in an infinitely more cynical way -- to poor Jessica Lynch in Iraq. There she was turned into a hideous cartoon character to which she bore no resemblance, quite literally wrapped in a flag after being shot up with tranquilizers. Thankfully, and to the shame of all of us, little Jessica quickly set about calling the Bush administration the liars they were, and the rest of us the willing stooges we were.
Finally, there are the personal heroes each of us carry around. An athlete here, a rock star there, and the soldiers with whom we are concerned here. People trained to do one thing, which is to kill other people. Take George Washington. Spent more years of his life killing people -- mostly by proxy, since he was a field-grade officer and aristocrat -- than he did fathering our country.
Of course, the worshippers of war heroes overwhelmingly are men. Sadly, we males measure our manhood, futilely, against the heroic shvantzes of our idols. So I submit my list of men to whom I am inferior in every way, but especially when it comes to the ability to kill other human beings.
Hence, being of good Texan stock on both sides, this makes me an impotent sack of useless guts, which have nothing to do with Guts. But I have my heroes, and here's my list of the best eight Texans who ever went off to war. And just for the record, since we're all men here (Of course we are -- women tend not to pick professional killers for their moral paradigms), my killers can and did kill more than yours, unless you're an illiterate, tattooed prison-Nazi.
So, defectively personal as it is, and as Veterans Day draws nigh, I present these eight sons of Texas without reservation:
The Wehrmacht, on its way to slaughter the 36th Infantry Division at Cassino
8. 36th Infantry "Texas" Division: Machine-Gun Fodder, WW II
Every swingin' dick a hero -- Right here the off-the-shelf, alt-media smugness machinery breaks down. We have nothing glib to say about this gallant but cynically squandered outfit. The famous 36th Division was, at the outbreak of WW II, a Texas National Guard unit, and had been formed and fought during WW I. They were called up just before WW II. In 1943, as part of Gen. Mark Clark's Fifth Army, they came ashore at the beginning of the Italian campaign and fought their way from Sicily up the Italian peninsula. At Cassino, facing the Rapido River, the 36th was brought to a quick and bloody halt by the well dug-in Germans.
Facing impossible Nazi defenses on the other side, the Texans were ordered to cross the river anyway. Despite unimaginable losses, they were ordered to cross again and again. They were cut down like sandcastles under the feet of bullies. Whole companies of men who had survived battle after battle were wiped out in minutes. And still they crossed, knowing they hadn't a chance of surviving. In some cases, casualties at the battalion and regimental levels approached 50 percent.
After Cassino, the 36th Division regrouped and continued to fight in most major engagements all the way to the end of the war. By the time their war was over, men of the 36th had been awarded 14 Medals of Honor, and doubtless had earned a hundred more. Captured German generals interrogated after the war were routinely asked to name their toughest and meanest opponents. The 36th, or its constituent elements, inevitably wound up on these lists.
Fifty years later, I attended a convention of 36th Division veterans at the old Shamrock Hilton in Houston. The group included many survivors of the Rapido River crossings. The bitterness of these old guys against their commanders had not waned one bit. Most blamed the notoriously arrogant Clark, who was infamous for squandering the lives of his grunts. Some even considered him a war criminal. All infantry troops complain about their officers, but saying that about your division commander, well, that there's just pure hatred.
7. George Lawson Keene: most decorated American soldier in WW I
We'll bet you've never heard of this Texas hero, and part of the reason is that his closest competitor for decorations was the legendary Sgt. Alvin York. But there is dispute among a few historians as to whether York was in fact more decorated than the almost forgotten Keene.
The American yellow press, as well as the Army's PR machine, cynically latched on to York as the superstitious, illiterate and pacifist hillbilly who became a stone cold slayer of Heinies. So much so that Gary Cooper eventually played him in the largely fictional movie, Sergeant York, which further entrenched the image of Alvin York.
And make no mistake: In combat, pacifist or no, York became the real deal at that moment when it counted, and he took out a bunch of dug-in German machine-gunners who threatened him and his buddies. Those he didn't kill outright, York single-handedly took prisoner. But that leaves the uncomfortable matter of the forgotten Texan Keene. He earned the Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster (Fun Fact: When you see the citation "with Oak Leaf Cluster," it means the same medal was won more than once; each additional time, an oak leaf cluster is added to the original medal).
Keene, of Crockett, also was wounded seven times during his service, leading to an equal number of Purple Heart citations. In addition to those, he received the Cross of Honor, the French Croix de Guerre with Palm, Order of the Knights of Verdun, and the French Commemorative Medal.
6. Doris "Dorie" Miller: Navy Cross for valor at Pearl Harbor
We can thank Hollywood for its endlessly long and immeasurably awful movies about Pearl Harbor -- Tora, Tora, Tora and Pearl Harbor -- for if nothing else, they keep the story of Waco's Dorie Miller alive.
He was a cook aboard the battleship USS West Virginia. It was the best job Miller could get in the Navy, him being African-American and all. And while the Japanese were putting the torch to everything that floated, being aboard a ship that was near the top of their target list was about as bad a place as you could be that day.
But when the bombs and torpedoes started falling, it was Miller who dashed up from the dirty-clothes locker, first helping to move the wounded to safety. After finding his assigned battle station destroyed by a Japanese torpedo, Miller took over a twin-mount .50 cal. heavy machine gun, giving Tojo a face full of good old Waco hot lead.
He manned the guns with genuine authority, according to witnesses, though he'd never been near one. As everybody in the US Navy knew, black people weren't capable of operating complicated gizmos like a pair of machine gun triggers.
To the Navy's credit, Dorie Miller was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions on Dec. 7, 1941. To the Navy's enduring shame, he was also promoted: to Mess Attendant, First Class. Keep in mind that young Miller had graduated high school, which was more than you could say for most sailors of his day.
President Truman with Garcia
5. Staff Sergeant Marcario Garcia: Medal of Honor, WW II
Garcia became the first Mexican immigrant to win the nation's highest award for valor. A cotton farmer from Sugar Land by 1940, Garcia's parents had emigrated with their children from Mexico in 1924, and were no different from most immigrants -- just looking for a better life and a decent place to raise their children.
When war came to America in 1941, Marcario Garcia immediately enlisted in the Army, where he was eventually assigned to the 4th Infantry Division. On 27 November, 1944, he was an infantry squad leader in Company B, 22nd Infantry Regiment.
Near Grosshau, Germany, Garcia found himself and his platoon pinned down by well dug-in machine emplacements, against which the Americans could only keep their heads down and try not to get shot. Garcia was not happy with this turn of events, and decided, as they say, to take the fight to the enemy.
As his Medal of Honor citation relates:
While an acting squad leader, he single-handedly assaulted two enemy machine gun emplacements. Attacking prepared positions on a wooded hill, which could be approached only through meager cover. His company was pinned down by intense machine-gun fire and subjected to a concentrated artillery and mortar barrage. Although painfully wounded, he refused to be evacuated and on his own initiative crawled forward alone until he reached a position near an enemy emplacement.
Hurling grenades, he boldly assaulted the position, destroyed the gun, and with his rifle killed three of the enemy who attempted to escape. When he rejoined his company, a second machine-gun opened fire and again the intrepid soldier went forward, utterly disregarding his own safety. He stormed the position and destroyed the gun, killed three more Germans, and captured four prisoners. He fought on with his unit until the objective was taken and only then did he permit himself to be removed for medical care.
The Roy Benavidez action figure
4. MSgt. Roy Benavidez: Medal of Honor, Vietnam
It pains us to quote Ronald Reagan or even to paraphrase his speechwriters, but in this case, the Gipper was right: If this story was a movie, we'd laugh at its improbability. Even John Wayne's ridiculous hagiography of the Green Berets wouldn't have dared a scene like this. But it's all true, its documentation impeccable.
Roy Benavidez grew up impoverished in El Campo and joined the Army to escape it in 1955. By 1968 he was a Staff Sgt. serving with the Special Forces in Vietnam (with the feared and ironically named "Studies and Observations Group").
On 2 May, 1968, a 12-man reconnaissance squad was choppered into an area of reported North Vietnamese Army activity. And boy did they find it. The team radioed desperately for helicopters to extract them, but three helos tried and all three were driven off by heavy ground fire. During this time, the squad was being wiped out.
Benavidez was monitoring all this on the radio, and when a helo finally did arrive at the base camp to offload some wounded crewmembers, he got aboard and headed back to the hot LZ near Loc Ninh. Benavidez, armed only with a knife and a medical bag, jumped from the hovering helo and while running the 75 yards to the besieged squad's location, he was shot in the leg, face and head.
Ignoring the wounds, he set about helping those who were still alive, all the while destroying classified documents in their possession. Benavidez organized those who could still use a rifle into a semblance of a defensive perimeter, during which he collected more and more wounds to himself from small arms and NVA grenades.
Finally, Benavidez mustered the strength to get on the radio and call in air strikes against the vastly superior force of attackers. By now, the fighting was hand-to-hand, and while carrying a wounded man to an evac helicopter, Benvidez was hacked in the head and arms with a bayonet before killing his assailant.
The close combat became so savage that at one point Benavidez found himself fighting with one arm and using the other to keep his intestines from spilling out. At this point, any mortal would have been forgiven had he surrendered himself to providence and died on the spot. And yet, not only did Benavidez fight for his own life, but continued to do so for his wounded buddies.
By now, nearly dead from loss of blood and horrific wounds, Benevidez killed two more NVA attackers before allowing himself to be dragged aboard a departing helicopter. In the six-hour fight he sustained 37 wounds from bullets, shrapnel and bayonet thrusts. He also saved the lives of at least eight men. When the helo arrived back at base camp, Benavidez was believed dead and placed in a body bag. Unable to speak, he had to spit in the face of the medic zipping him up to get his attention.
It took 13 years for Benavidez to get full recognition for what he had done, and only then did Ronald Reagan place the Medal of Honor around his neck. Around this time, Vietnam veterans finally became fashionable, and the Reagan Administration used Benavidez as a sort of poster boy for a while before eventually discarding him when he was no longer of any political use. In fact, even though a man could hardly be more heroic, nor give any more for his country, when the Reaganoids were finished with Benavidez, they weren't kidding. In 1983, as part of Reagan's "austerity" measures, Benavidez received notice that his disability benefits would be terminated.
As a child, I knew Audie Murphy mostly as an actor in Westerns and war movies that always had "Hell" somewhere in the title.
The diminutive Murphy's path to Hollywood and fame began when he was awarded the first of his 33 medals for bravery in WW II. What was most astonishing about this, other than the simple fact of so many, Audie won his decorations during "only" 26 months in combat and before he turned 21. That distinction must be made because David Hackworth won his 80 decorations over three wars, culminating in Vietnam (which Hackworth eventually left in disgust).
Underage and only 5-foot-5, Murphy would not have been accepted into the military at all were the U.S. not woefully short on bullet-bait by mid-1942. Murphy, who quit school in the fifth grade to help feed his Hunt County family, rose from a lowly buck private rifleman to officer rank and command of a company in the Third Division after fighting in North Africa, Sicily and France.
After the war, Murphy became an actor after being discovered by James Cagney on the cover of Life magazine. He made 44 films, mostly Westerns. He is best known for playing himself in the film based on his own war memoir, To Hell and Back. Murphy was uncomfortable with his casting, and had managed to get some script control. What resulted is one of the more accurate war movies you'll find. The 1955 picture was AIG's top-grossing film until Jaws 20 years later.
Upon dying in a plane crash in 1971, Murphy was awarded what is truly the highest honor a soldier can receive: The issue of an Audie Murphy GI Joe doll.
2. David "Tex" Hill, Naval aviator, Flying Tiger ace, immortal fighter pilot
Years ago, in an old air force hangar, I was hoovering up the free food at Press Day for the Wings Over Houston airshow when I found myself talking aviation with a tall, soft-spoken, quite elderly man. "Y'know," he said, "I commanded the first squadron of jets in the Air Force right here at Ellington."
Here we go, I thought. Bullshit is never spread so thick as at a gathering of military aviators and reporters. "I don't think I got your name," I said, being sly. A good reporter is always sly. Like Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole. Like me.
He stuck his big hand out. "David Hill. People call me 'Tex.'" I studied him, and through the wrinkles and bloat of age, there was the face. The strapping 22-year-old kid, leaning rakishly in leather jacket and silk scarf against a menacing, shark-mouthed P-40 Tomahawk. This old man, looming straight and tall over me, was David Lee "Tex" Hill, the man every fighter pilot wished he could be.
As a member of the American Volunteer Group (a.k.a. The Flying Tigers) flying for the Chinese in 1941, Hill was known to be honest as Jesus, gentle with women and animals, and had a heart as big as his native San Antonio. But at the stick of a fighter he was as cunning, ruthless and deadly as ever a man who took up arms.
And, technically, since the U.S. was not at war with anyone -- and Tex was being paid a $500 bonus for every Japanese aircraft he gunned down -- he was a mercenary. Soon after the U.S. entered the war, Hill joined the Air Force and went on to tally up 18.25 kills, making him an ace more than three times over. When Brig. Gen. Tex Hill died in 2007, at 92, more than 2,000 people turned out for his funeral.
1. Army of the Republic of Texas, Battle of San Jacinto, 1836
We have the gallant and doomed defenders of the Alamo. And there are the martyrs of Goliad. But for me, Texas heroes don't come much better than Sam Houston's army at San Jack.
There, in a pestilential swamp near the present site of pestilential Deer Park, it took them a possibly apocryphal 18 minutes to rout Santa Anna's Mexican Army. The ramped-up Texians required another couple of hours to gun down most of the retreating and surrendering Mexicans.
Of course, it can and has been argued that these revolutionaries were simply exacting revenge for Santa Anna's rather savage no-quarter treatment of the ultimately victorious Texians. But isn't part of the justification for taking up arms supposed to be one's moral superiority over his enemy? Maybe, not being a military person, I got that part wrong.
Like every last miserable arty type who left Texas for New York, I've obnoxiously held onto my Lone Star citizenship. My Texas pedigree is beyond question, going back farther than I care to search. My pride in my home state borders on the obnoxious. But let's face it, when it comes to the heroism of our cause back then, there are some, shall we say, unpleasant realities?
For example, when I was required to take Texas history in the seventh grade, there was nothing in the textbook about this rather uncomfortable issue of slavery. For you kids who may have been taught from the same 80-year-old books, our Texian forefathers wanted to keep their slaves. The Mexican constitution under which they lived forbade slavery of any kind.
Finally, and sadly, it seems the wonderful legend of The Yellow Rose of Texas is just that. She was the young woman who allegedly distracted Santa Anna with a round of slap-and-tickle while the Texas Army bore down on his encampment. As for me, despite the facts I choose to believe she was real. That's one of the best things about history.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.