Paul J. Wiedorfer, 89, who as an Army private on Christmas Day 1944 charged two German machine-gun nests and single-handedly saved his platoon mates caught in an ambush, an act for which he received the Medal of Honor, died May 25 at the Baltimore VA Medical Center. His family said he had congestive heart failure.
Mr. Wiedorfer, who was born and grew up in Baltimore, was reportedly Maryland’s last surviving recipient of the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor.
He was 23 when his unit, part of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army, was sent to rescue American troops trapped in Bastogne, Belgium, during the first days of the Battle of the Bulge.
On Christmas 1944, he and his platoon were advancing across a clearing in the snow-draped forest near Chaumont, Belgium. It was about noon on the cloudless, cold day when two camouflaged machine guns erupted with fire.
The American soldiers dropped to the frozen ground behind a small ridge, pinned down by the surprise German attack. Then Mr. Wiedorfer began his solo assault.
“I was probably a little nuts when I did it,” he told the Baltimore Sun in 1995. “But someone was going to die if something didn’t get done.”
He charged into the open field, sliding across the icy clearing, which had been blanketed the night before with three inches of wet snow.
As he ran, he slipped and fell once, but got up and kept going.
“Luckily, their firing wasn’t too good that day,” Mr. Wiedorfer told the Sun in 1994. “They didn’t get me.”
When he was within 10 yards of one machine-gun emplacement, he tossed a grenade into it. After it exploded, he shot and killed the remaining Germans inside. He then spun around and attacked the second nest with his rifle, wounding one of the German soldiers. Six other Germans surrendered to Mr. Wiedorfer, according to his official Medal of Honor citation, although some news accounts put the number higher.
“Twenty other Germans dug in around the two machine-gun positions,” Sun war correspondent Lee McCardell wrote at the time, “stood up in their foxholes, their hands over their heads and shouted kamerad,” or German for “friend.”
Two months later, crossing the Saar River in Germany, Mr. Wiedorfer’s unit came under mortar fire. The soldier next to him was killed instantly. Mr. Wiedorfer was struck by shrapnel, and the blast shattered his leg and injured his hand. He recuperated at a hospital in England, where he was placed in traction.
One day, a fellow patient was reading the Stars and Stripes newspaper and informed Mr. Wiedorfer that he’d just received the Medal of Honor for his Christmas Day bravery.
“To be perfectly honest,” Mr. Wiedorfer told the Sun in 2008, “I wasn’t really sure what the hell [the Medal of Honor] was, because all I was, was some dogface guy in the infantry.”
A few days later, still sitting in a hospital bed, Mr. Wiedorfer was presented the Medal of Honor while a military band filled the ward’s hallways with pomp and circumstance.
Paul Joseph Wiedorfer was born July 17, 1921, in Baltimore. He graduated from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute high school in 1939.
After the war, he was treated to a ticker-tape parade down the streets of Baltimore but spent three years in and out of hospitals recovering from his wounds.
Besides the Medal of Honor, Mr. Wiedorfer’s decorations included two awards of the Purple Heart.
He separated from the military in 1947 as a master sergeant and was a power station operator with Baltimore Gas and Electric when he retired in 1981.
In the early 1990s, a man came to Mr. Wiedorfer’s home and offered to polish his Medal of Honor. The man took the authentic medal from its ceremonial shadow box and replaced it with an imitation. Mr. Wiedorfer’s stolen medal was returned to him in 1995. Stephen Pyne, who was charged with the theft, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Mr. Wiedorfer’s wife, the former Alice Stauffer, died in 2008. A daughter, Nancy Mazer, died in 2010.
Survivors include three children, Randee Wiedorfer of Parkville, Md., Paul J. Wiedorfer Jr. of Baltimore and Gary Wiedorfer of Cocoa, Fla.; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
As he aged, Mr. Wiedorfer said he prayed for the day there would be no living recipients of the Medal of Honor.
“Because,” he once said, “it will mean that we have learned to live in peace.”
Today, 84 recipients remain.