For today's Medal of Honor Monday, we're honoring a brave recipient who passed away recently — 75 years after he jumped on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers in World War II.
Army Technician 5th Grade Robert Maxwell was born on Oct. 26, 1920, in Boise, Idaho, but he grew up with his grandparents in Kansas. He eventually moved to Colorado, where he became a timber ranch worker. From there, he was drafted into the Army in June 1942.
Maxwell — whose rank was equivalent to corporal, but with technical skills — served as an infantryman in North Africa and Italy before being sent to France with the 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, as a noncombatant to set up communications lines for his battalion.
On Sept. 7, 1944, Maxwell and three other soldiers, including his battalion commander, were part of an Allied group liberating Besancon, France. Maxwell was tying wires for communications onto a house that had become their battalion observation post when they were attacked. Armed with only .45-caliber automatic pistols, the four Americans defended the post against the enemy, who had artillery, machine guns and grenades.
"The Germans had apparently infiltrated past the rifle companies and were in the process of surrounding the command post," Maxwell said in a Library of Congress interview. "It was in danger of being captured."
According to his Medal of Honor citation, "Maxwell aggressively fought off advancing enemy elements and, by his calmness, tenacity and fortitude, inspired his fellows to continue the unequal struggle."
Eventually, an enemy hand grenade made it through the chicken wire fence surrounding the post and hit the ground near the four men.
"I just figured maybe I could pick it up and throw it back. That was the only thing I had in my mind at the moment," Maxwell said later. "That only lasted about one or two seconds."
Realizing he had no time for that, Maxwell threw himself on top of the grenade, using a blanket and his body to absorb the full force of the explosion.
"It wasn't intentional. It was just something that happened," he said.
Here's what happened next:
"All I was aware of was a big flash, and then of course, total darkness. I was out for I don't know how long," Maxwell said. "When I came to, there was no one around. The command post had been evacuated, and the personnel had pulled back to a safer area. Everyone was gone."
"I finally figured out that I could move some parts, so I got everything together and got all my limbs working, and got up on my feet and staggered over to the door of the house. I thought I heard someone inside," he said.
A lieutenant who was still there helped him to safety as the Germans remained on their tails.
"My left arm bicep muscle was torn out, and my left temple was hit about a quarter-inch from my eye. Most of those things I didn’t feel too much, except my foot," Maxwell said. "The grenade had taken off quite a portion of my instep, just ahead of my right heel."
Eventually, a Jeep came along, picked the pair up and took them to an aid station.
Maxwell was permanently injured, but he did survive. His split-second decision saved the lives of his fellow soldiers and helped his battalion maintain vital communications.
For his actions, Maxwell received the Medal of Honor on May 12, 1945, in Denver. He said the citation had been signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt just before he died.
Maxwell said he didn't think about what the medal meant at first, but that it grew on him over the years.
"I'm not wearing the medal for any personal deeds. I'm wearing it because it represents all of the casualties in the war," he said. "I think it represents all that’s good in the United States."
Maxwell left the service after the war and dedicated his life to education, establishing various programs at schools in Oregon. He lived a long life and passed away in Bend, Oregon, on May 11, 2019, at age 98 — almost 74 years to the day after he earned the nation's highest honor.
In September, a plaque was dedicated to Maxwell at a 3rd Infantry Division monument that overlooks the area in France where he saved his fellow soldiers.
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.