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Medal of Honor Monday: Marine Corps Pfc. Frank Witek

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Medal of Honor recipients show extraordinary courage when facing down impossible situations. That was the case for Marine Corps Pfc. Frank Witek, who fought and died while liberating Guam from the Japanese during World War II.

A Marine poses in his dress uniform.
Marine Corps Pfc. Frank P. Witek
Marine Corps Pfc. Frank P. Witek was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry while serving with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division, in action against the Japanese during the liberation of Guam on Aug. 3, 1944.
Photo By: Navy photo
VIRIN: 200730-N-ZZ999-145

Witek was born Dec. 10, 1921, in Derby, Connecticut, but his family — including two sisters and three brothers — moved to Chicago when he was 9. He graduated high school there and went to work as a laborer at the Standard Transformer Company. 

Shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, 20-year-old Witek enlisted in the Marine Corps. He left for recruit training in late January 1942 and was soon sent to serve with the 3rd Marine Division during World War II.

About a year later, his family got word he was in New Zealand. He was then sent to Bougainville, a small South Pacific island near Papua New Guinea, where he fought in three major battles and earned a promotion to private first class. 

On July 21, 1944, the 3rd Division was sent to liberate Guam, a U.S. territory in the Mariana Islands that had been captured by the Japanese in 1941. Witek was a scout and automatic rifleman with the division's 1st Battalion, 9th Marines.

A map of Guam.
Guam Liberation
A map of Guam during its liberation from the Japanese in 1944.
Photo By: Courtesy DOD
VIRIN: 200730-D-ZZ999-267

On Aug. 3, 1944, Witek's platoon was in a bitter fight with the Japanese in an area of the island known as Finegayen. At one point, they were pinned down by heavy fire that came as a surprise from a well-camouflaged enemy position. Instead of finding cover, Witek stood and, at point-blank range, fired a full magazine into a depression that held Japanese troops. Eight enemy soldiers were killed; the short respite from attack gave most of Witek’s platoon a chance to take cover.

Soon, the platoon was ordered to withdraw to consolidate lines. Witek stayed behind to help a severely wounded comrade, firing at the enemy until more men came with a stretcher for the injured Marine. Witek continued firing as they evacuated, but soon his platoon was pinned down again due to heavy machine gun fire. 

Without being ordered to do so, Witek pushed forward into the hail of gunfire to help support tanks and infantrymen leading the fight. Using his gun and hand grenades, he managed to get within 5-10 yards of the Japanese, close enough to kill eight more enemy fighters and destroy their machine gun.

Several men and a tank push through an overgrown field near palm trees.
Marine Advance
Marines advance on Guam in company with an M-4 Sherman tank, July-August 1944.
Photo By: Marine Corps photo
VIRIN: 440731-M-ZZ999-123

Unfortunately, his luck ran out at the same time. Witek was targeted by an enemy rifleman and killed.

The 23-year-old's heroic actions massively reduced the enemy's firepower during the fight, enabling his platoon to reach its objective. By Aug. 10, Japanese resistance had ended, and Guam was declared secure.

Nearly a month later, Witek's mother received word that her son had given his life for the cause. According to the combat correspondent’s release, when Witek was found, his rifle had only eight cartridges left on an original 240 rounds.

On May 20, 1945, Witek's mother, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift and about 50,000 other people gathered at Soldiers Field in Chicago to honor the slain Marine. During the ceremony, his mother accepted the Medal of Honor on his behalf. Less than a year later, the Navy’s newest destroyer, the USS Witek, was commissioned and named for him.

Men with rifles stand near a tank along a road in dense jungle.
Guam Advance
Marine Corps tanks and infantry advance cautiously along a road in Guam during the territory’s liberation in July-August 1944.
Photo By: Marine Corps photo
VIRIN: 440731-M-ZZ999-124

Initially buried in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps Cemetery on Guam, Witek was reinterred in 1949 at Rock Island National Cemetery in Rock Island, Illinois.

While he spent most of his young adult life in Chicago, he never forgot the Connecticut town in which he was raised. For that, 144 acres of land in the town of Derby were named Witek Memorial Park in 1999.

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.

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