The Ability and the Duty to Be Heroic

More than 450,000 Americans paid the highest price for their citizenship in the years between 1941 and 1945. Every one of them equally deserves our tribute, our gratitude, and our remembrance on Memorial Day.

A few deserve special recognition — not because their sacrifice was more noble, but because the accounts of their sacrifice, offered by their surviving comrades, illustrate the nature of courage, which we may never know until, by chance, it is required of us.

These stories show that heroism is unromantic, and sometimes pathetic, but something that lies within average Americans. Such a story is “A Boy Named Rodger Young,” [PDF] from 1945. Written by Chief Warrant Officer E. J. Kahn, Jr., it is a moving tribute to the courage of this young man, which earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor. But it is also reminder of the ordinariness of great heroes.

“Rodger Young was a very ordinary man who became a great one. There is no typical American foot soldier—our doughboys rightly deny the existence of any such insult to their individuality—but in a nation where type casting has become an institution, both on the screen and off it, Rodger Young could be said to have a pretty close resemblance to the average soldier. Perhaps his peacetime lack of distinction is in itself symbolic of the incredible change so many Americans made from obscure citizens to artful practitioners of a difficult and dangerous trade.

“Rodger Young did not look like a storybook soldier. He was short and light, with poor eyes and poorer ears, and yet he was an expert marksman who never faltered on the longest march. He had never been a particularly dashing young man, and he deeply loved his small-town life in the heart of the United States. And yet he elected to die violently on a remote and ugly island he had probably never heard of until a few weeks before he was buried there.

“In every conceivable way, he was an average man. He was only fair in his studies, and left high school after his junior year. He was far from well-to-do, but never so poor as to be hungry. He was devoted to his family. He went to church, but only now and then. He was fond of children. He was fond of dogs. He liked to play practical jokes on his friends, but would readily admit that be had an inferior sense of humor. He worked hard and faithfully at an unskilled job. He played a middling game of poker and pinochle. He went out with a variety of girls, owned a battered old car, was an eager, though inexpert, photographer, was punished by his mother for smoking at too precocious an age, and was so utterly inconspicuous that, after he became nationally recognized as a hero, the home folks in Sandusky County, Ohio, trying to reminisce about him, could not say for certain whether they recalled ever having seen him or not.

“He quit school because he had trouble reading.  He had to wear glasses all the time, and became slightly deaf… He may well have been a legitimate 4-F.

Sgt. Rodger Young

“He was cheerful and not in the least apprehensive about his prospects.  He refused to worry about himself and, in letters home, good-naturedly scolded his parents for worrying about him.  “I can run faster than any Jap,” he used to say,” and I’ll be all right as long as I see the Japs first.”

” July 31,1943, was his company’s second day in battle.  The doughboys had a rough introduction to the practical side of war.  They had scarcely gone into the line when, three miles from the Jap-held airfield at Munda, they found themselves cut off.  An order came thorough to withdraw.  Sgt. Walter Rigby, commanding the platoon Young was assigned to, got the word and passed it along to his men, scattered throughout the jungle and under rifle fire from Japs close by.  The order was relayed from man to man.  A private lying near Young, suspecting that he might not have heard the order, poked him with a stick and, drawing his attention, motioned to the rear.

“Just about then a Jap machine gun opened up on the platoon, raking it with fire.  The men tried to pull back, but movement was virtually impossible under the deadly surveillance of that gun, shooting from a hidden jungle position.  Withdrawal seemed difficult; so, for that matter, did survival.

“Then the soldier who had announced gaily months before that he would be all right as long as he saw the Japs first, got a chance to confirm his prediction.  He saw them first.  He called out that he had spotted the gun.  According to the role he had elected to play in his own combat story, he should have beaten the hastiest possible retreat.  But Rodger Young forgot his cut.  He forgot that he was only a private and had no official responsibility for the men around him.  He opened fire with his rifle.  The Japs answered him with a burst in his direction, and hit him.  Then Rodger Young went in to action.

“With his rifle in one hand and a few grenades in his uniform pocket, he began crawling slowly toward the machine gun.  Nobody can say what he was thinking.  Perhaps he figured that his skill as a marksman gave him the best chance of all his buddies to knock out the gun.  Whatever he figured, he must have had a pretty good idea that he was going on a one-way trip.  The Japs saw him coming and turned the gun on him.  They hit him a second time and he flinched.  But he didn’t stop.  He kept on inching forward and, and he got closer to the Japs. They ignored the rest of the platoon and concentrated their whole murderous fire on Rodger Young.  That was the break the men needed to get out of the trap.

“As they crawled back successfully, Rodger Young dragged himself even nearer to the Jap position, and began tossing grenades into it.  He was too close to the Japs by now for them to miss, and they didn’t.  They hit him a third time and stopped him for good, just as one of his grenades fell into their position and stopped their gun.

“It was the next day before the platoon could get back in and recover his body.  They buried him where he fell, wrapped in his shelter half, with a rough wooden cross over him and his helmet mounting the cross.  His regimental chaplain gave a talk and said a prayer, and the mourners bowed their head extra low because Jap bullets were still flying around the area.  Later, when there was time for it, they gave him a more dignified funeral.”

Average and unexceptional, Rodger Young showed that heroism was within us all, and none of us should think ourselves incapable of such courage.

Read “A Boy Named Rodger Young” by Chief Warrant Officer E. J. Kahn, Jr. [PDF]