Fifteen years ago, former Pvt. William James Tsakanikas watched "The Battle of the Bulge" on television. His reaction was swift and sharp. "That was a love story!"
Tsakanikas, who shortened his name to William James after World War II, fought in a little-known but highly important defense on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge in a village called Lanzerath on the German-Belgian border.
Hardly anyone remembers that battle today. But recently Sen. Jacob Javits (R.N.Y.) reported in Congress that James' ill-equipped 18-member intelligence and reconnaisance platoon "held off an elite German battalion for almost an entire day, and inflicted over 500 casualties." The small unit thus made it possible for the 99th InfantryDivision to regroup and hold on against this last German offensive until the allied armies could react and win the 1944 Battle of the Bulge, Javits said.
James died two years ago at 52. Now Javits, four other senators and 26 congressmen have submitted bills asking President Carter to award him posthumously the Medal of Honor, the armed forces' highest decoration. Their legislation would require Carter to exempt James' case from existing laws requiring recipients of the medal to have been nominated within two years of the action for which they are cited.
Chief of Military Awards Lt. Colonel Vernon R. Hull argued, last week before a House Armed Services subcommittee that he has not seen "information which would warrant a waiver" in James' case.
"No official record has been found to show that during Mr. Tsakanikas' service he performed an act of conspicuous personal bravery which would have resulted in the award of the Medal of Honor," Hull said.
In other testimony at the hearing, members of James' platoon said that, while his actions were valorous, they were not necessarily more so that those of the unit as a whole. No soldier in the I & R platoon of the 39th Infantry Regiment, 99th Division, has received any citation for the action, except the lieutenant, Lyle J. Bouck Jr., who, to his surprise received a Silver Star through the mail in 1965.
"I'm actually surprised a unit citation at the minimum wasn't given after the facts were revealed," said subcommittee chairman. Richard C. White (D-Tex.).
Rep. Richard L. Ottinger, a Democrat from James' home state of New York, has championed the cause, calling James a "shining example of American courage" who "symbolizes and epitomizes the valor of his unit."
James was shot in the face during the assault, and lost an eye and most of his jaw. He was unemployable and receiving a 100 percent disability penion when he died in Port Chester, N.Y., in June 1977.
John Eisenhower's book, "Bitter Woods," first brought the Lanzerath incident to light in 1965. In it, the former president's son claimed Tsakanikas was party responsible for getting the platoon to stand fast throughout three assaults by the Germans.
The Medal of Honor is awarded by the president in the name of Congress for "acts of conspicuous gallantry" in combat, Hull said. It has been awarded only 2,352 times since 1861, with half of the medals having been given in the Civil War. A total of 293 medals were given during World War II, and 154 were awarded in Vietnam.
a $200-a-month life pension comes with the award; in James' case it would be given to his widow.
Congress has waived the statute of limitations for the medal only once, White said. In that case, a Marine, Tony Casamento, was not deemed eligible for the award