Private Wilburn Kirby Ross: An American Hero

Andrew Stillman Phipps provided us this account of the incredible courage that earned Wilburn Ross the Medal of Honor.

It is an extremely hard medal to earn; more than half of the men who earned the Medal of Honor died in their achievement.

Since 1862, when it was first given to members of our armed forces for gallantry and bravery beyond the call of duty, it has been awarded 3,445 times.

During the First World War, the President, acting on behalf of Congress, awarded the Medal to 124 servicemen. During World War II, it was awarded 464 times. All of the World War I recipients are now gone, and only 32 remain of World War II’s recipients. One of these is Wilburn Kirby Ross. “Wib”, as he is affectionately known by family and friends, is now 86 years of age and still reflects the modesty known to most heroes as only doing their duty.

He was born on May 12, 1922, in McCreary County, Kentucky, about 30 miles north of Pall Mall, Tennessee, the home of Sgt. Alvin York. Just four years before Ross was born, York won the Medal of Honor for leading an attack on a German machine-gun nest in France. Commanding seven other men, York captured 32 machine guns, killed 28 German soldiers, and forced the surrender of 132 other Germans.

Ross would have grown up hearing about Sergeant York’s accomplishments again and again; it was an area with few opportunities for distinguishing yourself. Most people made their living cutting timber, coal mining, and subsistence farming. At best, life was hard and most people were poor. Opportunities for education and good jobs were almost non-existent. Faith, family, and freedom were, and are, important to these people whose background was forged by generations of hardy pioneers.

On October 30, 1944, another representative from this region achieved recognition. Wilburn Ross, serving as a private with the 350th Infantry, manned a machine gun to drive back six attacks by German troops. He held his position even after the riflemen supporting him ran out of ammunition. He continued firing even as enemy soldiers were lobbing grenades at him from just 4 yards away. He refused to withdraw when he ran out of ammunition. Instead, he held his position as the German prepared for another attack. The ammunition arrived at the last minute, enabling him to repulse the German assault. All tolled, Ross held his position under intense fire for 36 hours.

The heroes from Kentucky: MSG. Ross, with World War I veteran Alvin C. York, was 23 when this 1945 picture was taken. Sgt. York was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during World War I.

Asked about his heroism, “Wib” has said, “I had been in this so long, I knew what they (the Germans) were doing. When they would charge, I would mow them down.”

While serving on the Italian front, Ross was captured at the Anzio beachhead, but miraculously escaped. Dusk was coming and, for some reason, the enemy guard did not appear to be paying much attention to him, instead fixing their attention on his buddies and talking to them. Ross moved out of sight and commenced to walk away. It was night now, and those moving about him were not able to see that he was an American.

He eluded further capture and survived on his own for three days and four nights. He says, “I didn’t get hungry. I didn’t get thirsty. I was worried about getting out of there.” Traveling at night, he hid under leaves during the day. Once the Germans got so close to him, he said, “I could have reached out my hand and touched the man on his coat.”

Later, seeing American planes in the sky, he followed the direction of their flight and was happy to reunite with American forces, where he gratefully dug into a can of meat and beans.

When Ross returned to Strunk, Kentucky, he was greeted by a crowd of 3,000 citizens, Governor Simeon Willis, and a neighbor who could best appreciate Ross’s bravery and dedication: Sergeant Alvin C. York.

Americans should be grateful that uncommon valor has commonly appeared among the men and women in our armed forces. They have served their country beyond the ability of our small tributes to repay them. We must never forget those who have stood in harm’s way to defend liberty and to pay the continually rising price of freedom.