`Someone had to do it. And I just did it'

WAY BACK WHEN

Parkville man recalls winning Medal of Honor

Backstory

May 11, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun reporter

There are 30 living Medal of Honor recipients from World War II, and Paul J. Wiedorfer from Parkville is one of them.

"In fact, I'm the only living Maryland Congressional Medal of Honor winner," Wiedorfer, 87, said in an interview from his home the other day.

Three days before V-E Day, May 8, 1945, Wiedorfer was recuperating at the 137th United States Army General Hospital in England, from wounds he received in a mortar attack while crossing the Saar River earlier that year.

A mortar shell had exploded nearby, instantly killing a fellow soldier. Shrapnel ripped into Wiedorfer's stomach, broke his left leg and riddled his right. Two fingers on his right hand were seriously injured.

"That was Feb. 10, 1945. The sergeant's back was blown open and he was dead when he hit the ground. I was just lucky, I guess," he said. "I spent more than three years in hospitals recovering from those wounds."

A fellow patient was busy reading the Stars and Stripes when he suddenly asked, "How do you spell your name?"

"It really was funny. I said, `W-i-e-d-o-r-f-e-r,' and he said, `You just got a medal.' I said was it the Bronze Star and he said no, the `Congressional Medal of Honor.'"

"To be perfectly honest with you, I wasn't really sure what the hell it was, because all I was, was some dogface guy in the infantry," he said, laughing.

Wiedorfer, who was 24 at the time, recalled the day of the presentation at the hospital.

"All the officers and nurses were wearing their Class A uniforms and there was a band. Gen. E.F. Koenig came into the ward and presented the medal," he said. "I really was embarrassed by all the fuss."

Wiedorfer, who was born in Baltimore and raised in the 2400 block of McElderry St., attended St. Andrew's School and graduated in 1939 from Polytechnic Institute.

He went to work for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. the next year as an apprentice power station operator, and continued working there until 1943, when he enlisted in the Army.

He was assigned to the Quartermaster Corps and then took and passed the examination for cadet air training. Three months into training, he was abruptly reassigned to the infantry.

"He was disgusted, fed up. His one ambition was to be a pilot and just when he was on his way he was shifted to the infantry," his wife, the former Alice Steinmetz, whom he had married in 1943, told The Sun in a 1945 interview.

Wiedorfer, who had joined Company G, 318th Infantry, 80th Division, entered combat for the first time during the Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1944.

At the edge of a forest, Wiedorfer's company was pinned down by German fire.

"Suddenly something popped into my mind. Something had to be done and someone had to do it. And I just did it. I can't tell you why," he said.

Wiedorfer dashed some 150 yards across a snow and ice-covered field under a hail of enemy fire and single-handedly knocked out two German machine gun nests.

He came within 10 yards of the first machine gun nest and hurled a grenade that instantly killed several enemy soldiers. Then he opened up with rifle fire on the second nest, killing one soldier, and taking many prisoners.

"Twenty other Germans dug in around the two machine gun positions, stood up in their foxholes, their hands over their heads and shouted kamerad," wrote Lee McCardell, a Sun war correspondent, assigned to Gen. George S. Patton Jr.'s 3rd Army.

A few moments after Wiedorfer completed this daring feat, the unit's platoon sergeant and another soldier were killed.

Wiedorfer, who was given a battlefield promotion to sergeant, took up the successful leadership of the platoon and continued its advance.

"I lived the life of about seven or eight infantrymen, because I didn't get wounded until Feb. 10, 1945," he told The Sun in a 1994 interview. `The average infantrymen only lasts 30 or 60 days. Maybe he's not killed, but he's wounded or his feet are frozen or something's wrong, so he gets pulled from fire."

Wiedorfer was flown home and on June 11, 1945, was given a ticker tape parade through downtown Baltimore that began at the Washington Monument and ended at the War Memorial.

In the open touring car with Wiedorfer were Gov. Herbert R. O'Conor, Mayor Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, and Sen. Millard E. Tydings.

On the reviewing stand before a crowd of 35,000 that jammed City Hall Plaza, Gen. George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff, grasped the young soldier's hand and said, "I am proud to take you by the hand."

"I had to give a little speech and I had never given a speech in my life. I was so nervous that I called Mayor McKeldin `Mayor McKinsey.' He thought it was awfully funny and told me so later in the day," Wiedorfer said.

After the war, Wiedorfer returned to civilian life and his job at the gas company, where he worked as a power station operator until he retired in 1981.

Today, he still drives his car locally with the honorary Medal of Honor license plates. He and his wife of 63 years raised four children. They enjoy spending time with them and their six grandchildren and two great-grandsons.

Wiedorfer is not a forgotten man and averages at least four requests a month for autographs by World War II buffs. He graciously complies.

"The Internet has certainly made it a lot easier for autograph seekers," he said. "However, sometimes people want me to answer 110 questions and I'm not up to that."

Does his mind travel back to that snowy night at Bastogne?

"It gets less and less with each passing year. Maybe the good Lord grants you a favor in helping you forget," he said. "You know, war really is hell."

He added: "I fought in the war to end all wars and since that time, there's been nothing but war."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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