David M. Thomas is an editor and writer living in Monterey, Calif.
On Christmas Day, 1944, Lt. John R. Fox was a 29-year-old GI fighting in Sommocolonia, Italy. The mountain village had been the scene of intense fighting between U.S. and German forces. For the time being, the Americans controlled the town. Members of his unit even handed out chocolates and cheese to villagers on Christmas Day.
A German counterattack was expected, however. In the early hours of Dec. 26, that attack began.
Fox was an artillery spotter. This meant he was the "eyes" of artillery units miles from Sommocolonia. His job was to radio the coordinates that told the units where to deliver their payloads. His lookout position was the second floor of a house.
The German attack was so severe that the Americans were forced to retreat. A few Americans volunteered to remain behind, however. Fox was one of them.
He volunteered to remain behind in order to direct defensive fire to provide cover for retreating soldiers. This act of heroism helped buy time for American units to regroup and retake Sommocolonia several days later.
Fox was a college graduate in biology and science. The sharp and calculating mind that made him a model officer and artillery spotter no doubt wandered from time to time, on that last day of his life, to his wife and baby girl back in Massachusetts. It's easy to imagine he said a prayer or two.
He had plenty of time to escape. In fact, senior officers expected Fox and the other members of his unit to abandon the village when it became clear that the Germans would overrun it. But he stayed.
The small contingent of GIs, aided by 20 or so Italian resistance fighters, were no match for the overwhelming enemy numbers. It was clear what the outcome would be.
By 9 a.m. there was no-quarter, hand-to-hand fighting in the streets of Sommocolonia. Two-thirds of the GIs and resistance fighters were killed or wounded.
From his location on the second floor of the house, Fox coolly continued to direct the artillery fire. "That was just where I wanted it," he radioed the receiving artillery officer at around noon. "Bring it in 60 yards."
The artillery officer questioned this order. "Fox, that will be on you," he said.
"Fire it," Fox said. "There's more of them than there are us."
The artillery units began deploying a heavy concentration of shells that would ultimately converge directly on Fox's observation post. Any one shell was enough to destroy a house. The barrage he ordered was catastrophic.
This morning I am thinking about this sacrifice — this gift to me and every American. I wonder what Fox's thoughts were in the last moments, when he knew he was never going to see his homeland again. That he would never see his wife and daughter again.
It took more than 50 years and an act of Congress for him to receive his Medal of Honor. His citation states that when his body was found, it was surrounded by the corpses of about 100 German soldiers.
John R. Fox, it hardly seems sufficient to say thank you. But thank you.
Thank you for fighting a German army led by a dictator who disparaged other races and threatened the free press and promised to return his country to greatness.
Thank you for fighting the forces of fascism in Italy, where a dictator had suppressed civil liberties since ending democracy in 1925 and advanced his own racist rhetoric.
Thank you, John R. Fox, and other members of the famous 92nd Infantry Division, the "Buffalo Soldiers," a segregated, African American division, for your service and your sacrifice. For your gift.
It's a gift I never want to take for granted — your gift and the gift of thousands who sacrificed their lives fighting the forces of tyranny to keep that tyranny from American shores.
When I see groups brandishing torches and wearing Nazi insignia and giving straight-arm salutes, I remember that they have those freedoms thanks in part to you.
And when I wonder how we could have seemingly forgotten what our country stands for, a picture comes to mind — of Arlington National Cemetery. I see the rows upon rows of gravesites, all sharing the same hallowed ground.