Army Tech Sgt. Vernon McGarity spent the last few months of World War II in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. The actions that got him there helped the Allies win the critical Battle of the Bulge — and earned him the Medal of Honor.
McGarity was born Dec. 1, 1921, in rural Right, Tennessee. He worked with the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps before being drafted into the Army on Nov. 24, 1942, a week shy of his 21st birthday.
By late 1944, McGarity was a staff sergeant, fighting his way across Europe as the squad leader of Company L of the 393rd Infantry, 99th Infantry Division.
A lot changed for him on Dec. 16, 1944 — the first day of what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most decisive and bloodiest battles of the war. The battle began as German forces staged a surprise counteroffensive on exhausted U.S. troops in the frigid, snow-covered hills of Belgium's Ardennes Forest.
Just before that counteroffensive was launched, McGarity was seriously wounded by an artillery barrage near Krinkelt, Belgium. He got help at an aid station and refused evacuation, instead choosing to return to his company and fight.
Their orders were to stand firm at all costs, so that's what they did, despite the massive German fire that barreled down on them, destroying their communications. McGarity encouraged his men to continuously repulse enemy attacks throughout the night.
McGarity saved two wounded soldiers, and he braved heavy fire to get to a position where he could take out the enemy's lead tank with a rocket launcher. Those efforts forced several German infantrymen and three tanks to withdraw.
McGarity then directed fire on an enemy cannon. When he realized his unit was low on ammunition, he ran under heavy fire to an old ammunition hole about 100 yards away to replenish their supply.
The Germans then used two machine guns to cut off the unit's only escape route, but McGarity refused to let that stand. He ran from cover through the deadly fire and took out the gunners at both positions. He also prevented new men from manning the guns.
The unit held its position until it fired its last rounds and the men were taken as prisoners. Still, their efforts to delay the Germans gave the U.S. enough time to assemble reserve troops and form a line that was eventually able to destroy the enemy offensive and win the battle.
The Battle of the Bulge was an Allied success that solidified the end of Hitler's Germany, but it came at a heavy cost. The U.S. suffered more than 75,000 casualties — 19,276 were killed in the 41-day conflict, nearly 47,500 were wounded and thousands more were reported missing.
McGarity and the other captured men of the 99th Division were taken to a German prisoner of war camp in Moosburg, Germany, where they remained until the camp was liberated in April, 1945.
McGarity was recommended for the Medal of Honor a month later. After attaining the rank of technical sergeant, he received the medal on Dec. 18, 1945, at a ceremony at the White House. McGarity also earned the Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal for his service in World War II.
He left active service to join the Tennessee Army National Guard in November 1947. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1974, then worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs for another three decades.
McGarity and his wife, Ethelene, settled down in Memphis, Tennessee, and had two children. His friends and family said the former soldier rarely talked about his service.
McGarity died of cancer on May 21, 2013, and was buried at Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis. He was 91 years old.
The Tech Sgt. Vernon McGarity Army Reserve Center opened in 2010 in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, to honor his memory.