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Melvin E. Biddle, honored for heroism in Battle of the Bulge, dies at 87

By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 7:17 PM

The orders from Melvin E. Biddle's Army commander came quickly. The officer pointed at then-Pfc. Biddle and barked, "You! Out front!"

It was late December 1944 and a ragtag company of American cooks and clerks were stranded in Hotton, Belgium, about four miles from Mr. Biddle's unit near Soy.

The Battle of the Bulge had just begun, and the troops in Hotton were surrounded and outnumbered by German forces. They needed to be rescued. Leading the stealthy advance through the snowy forests was Mr. Biddle, who took over when his unit's two lead scouts were injured in a land-mine blast.

For his courageous actions during the 20-hour rescue operation, Mr. Biddle received the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. decoration for valor.

Mr. Biddle, 87, died of congestive heart failure Dec. 17 at his home in Anderson, Ind.

"I'm not a hero, not at all," he told USA Today in 1999. "When the Army put me out front, they put the responsibility on me, and you think about that responsibility instead of the fear."

On Dec. 23, 1944, Mr. Biddle came under enemy fire as he crawled toward Hotton through snow and underbrush. In quick succession, Mr. Biddle killed three German snipers with "unerring marksmanship," according to his Medal of Honor citation.

He continued his advance 200 more yards before coming upon an enemy machine-gun nest. After killing its two occupants, he lobbed grenades at a concealed machine-gun position nearby and killed three more German soldiers. After signaling back to his unit to advance, Mr. Biddle moved forward, shot three more Germans and tossed his last grenade into a third Nazi machine-gun emplacement.

As darkness fell over the American soldiers, German tanks rumbled in the distance. Mr. Biddle volunteered to go out alone and scout the enemy armor location. He crawled through the woods, getting so close to German sentries that one stepped on Mr. Biddle's hand. He stifled a groan of pain into the snow beneath his face and returned to his unit unscathed.

In the morning, U.S. forces destroyed two German tanks that Mr. Biddle had spotted the night before.

He was dispatched to serve as a scout again the following day.

As recounted in the 2003 book "Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty" by Peter Collier, Mr. Biddle was advancing toward an open field when he saw 13 enemy soldiers. Mr. Biddle emptied two clips from his M-1 rifle at the Germans. He killed them all. Shortly afterward, he found a 14-year-old boy in a German uniform roped to a tree - presumably so he couldn't run away.

A soldier behind Mr. Biddle shouted for him to shoot the teenager. Mr. Biddle spared the boy and instead took him prisoner. When Mr. Biddle's unit found the 13 dead Germans, many of his comrades urged him to come take a look. Mr. Biddle refused.

Throughout the ordeal, Mr. Biddle suffered not a scratch - though the sleeves of his uniform were pocked with bullet holes. Because of his actions, Mr. Biddle's unit was able "to break the enemy grasp on Hotton with a minimum of casualties."

A week after the rescue, Mr. Biddle was struck in the neck by shrapnel. While recuperating in a hospital in England, he was informed that the projectile had missed his jugular vein by a half a centimeter.

On Oct. 12, 1945, Mr. Biddle stood eye to eye with President Harry S. Truman during his Medal of Honor presentation on the White House lawn, according to Collier's 2003 book. As Truman placed the blue ribbon around Mr. Biddle's neck, the president whispered into the soldier's ear: "People don't believe me when I tell them I'd rather have one of these than be president."

Melvin Earl Biddle was born Nov. 28, 1923, in Daleville, Ind.

He was promoted to corporal after receiving the Medal of Honor. His other military decorations included the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart.

After he left the Army, Mr. Biddle spent 26 years at what is now the Department of Veterans Affairs in Indiana helping distribute loans and disability benefits to retired service members. He also served on the Anderson City Council.

Survivors include his wife of 64 years, Leona Allen Biddle of Anderson; two daughters, Elissa Wickersham of Anderson and Marsha Foust Taylor of Wilmington, Ohio; a sister; and nine grandchildren.

In retirement, Mr. Biddle often spoke at events honoring veterans but preferred to spend his free time with his grandchildren having backyard barbecues.

"What do they think of their grandfather, the hero?" Mr. Biddle once recalled. "They think I cook a pretty good steak."

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