This Veterans Day, the USCCA would like to honor five American veterans. These war heroes accomplished remarkable feats of bravery on the battlefield despite daunting odds. And they were armed with dependable guns that permitted them to survive these deadly encounters.
Teddy Roosevelt (Spanish-American War)
On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba, killing 266 Americans. The American press was quick to blame Spain for the explosion. Divers salvaged some items from the sunken battleship, which included an 1892 Army and Navy Colt revolver. Lt. Commander William S. Cowles, the Fern’s commander, presented the gun to his brother-in-law, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt.
When war broke out between the United States and Spain two months later, Roosevelt resigned from his government position and volunteered. He commanded the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry (or “Rough Riders”) during the American invasion of Spanish-held Cuba. Roosevelt carried the Maine revolver when he led a desperate charge at San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898.
Roosevelt was the first man to reach the enemy trenches. There he put the Maine’s revolver to use.
Two Spanish soldiers leaped from a trench in front of him at 10 yards and began firing. “I closed in and fired twice, missing the first and killing the second,” Roosevelt recalled. “He doubled up as neatly as a jackrabbit.”
Roosevelt survived the war and later became the 26th president of the United States. In 2001, President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to Roosevelt’s descendants for his heroics at San Juan Hill.
In 1990, a burglar stole Roosevelt’s famed Maine revolver from the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site in Oyster Bay, New York. Sixteen years later, the FBI’s Art Crime Team, with the help of others, successfully recovered it.
Alvin York (World War I)
Tennessee native Alvin York was drafted into the U.S. Army when war broke out with Germany in 1917. A deeply religious man, York worried about taking another man’s life. He prayed to God and asked for guidance. He found inner peace when God responded and assured him it was alright to fight.
York most likely carried an M1917 Enfield rifle during the war. (There’s debate if he was armed with an M1903 Springfield instead.) Regardless of what rifle he used, what York achieved with his weapon and some guts behind it was remarkable.
On October 8, 1918, following the successful capture of Hill 223 near the French village of Châtel-Chéhéry, York’s unit moved down the reverse slope into an open valley. They came under heavy fire from an entrenched German machinegun battalion planted on the ridges. York’s platoon took heavy casualties and was pinned down. After three superior officers fell dead or wounded, York assumed command.
“I had no time nohow to do nothing but watch them-there German machine gunners and give them the best I had. Every time I seed a German I jes teched [touched] him off,” York recalled in his diary. “I jes couldn’t miss a German’s head or body at that distance. And I didn’t.”
After eliminating a German machine gun nest, York captured 132 enemy soldiers and 35 machine guns. In 1919, General John J. Pershing presented him with the Medal of Honor.
While we don’t know what happened to York’s rifle or M1911 pistol, we do know what happened to one of his war trophies. In 2003, a worker discovered one of the German Maxim machine guns he captured in a Massachusetts library’s attic. It’s now in the Museum of Appalachia’s collection in Tennessee.
Audie Murphy (World War II)
During his three years of service in World War II, Audie Murphy was wounded three times and received 28 medals and citations. The boyish-looking Texan was the most decorated American soldier of the war.
Murphy carried an M1 Garand like most other American infantrymen. In his best-selling memoir To Hell and Back (1949), Murphy said, “I believe in the force of a hand grenade, the power of artillery and accuracy of a Garand.”
On January 26, 1945, Second Lieutenant Murphy singlehandedly took on six Mark VI Tiger tanks and more than 200 German infantrymen near Holtzwihr, France. Murphy’s superiors ordered him to hold his position until reinforcements arrived.
“Get the men back,” Murphy told his platoon sergeant. “I’m going to stay here with the phone as long as I can.”
The sergeant and 18 men fell back and hunkered down under the protection of the nearby forest. Murphy remained ahead in a foxhole to call in artillery support. Between talking on the field telephone, he held the enemy soldiers at bay with his M1 rifle until he ran out of ammunition. He then rushed to a burning tank destroyer and used its .50-caliber machine gun against the German soldiers.
For an hour, the Germans tried to eliminate him. Enemy soldiers reached within 10 yards of Murphy’s position, but he cut them down before they succeeded in killing him. When he ran out of ammunition, Murphy rejoined his men and led a counterattack to drive off the enemy.
On June 2, 1945, Lt. General Alexander M. Patch of the Seventh Army presented Murphy with the Medal of Honor. He survived the war and acted in more than 40 films.
Murphy’s M1 rifle is now on display at the 3rd Infantry Division Museum at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
Lewis Millett (Korean War)
Historians don’t remember Captain Lewis Lee Millett by the rifle he carried; it’s the tool attached to it. During the Korean War, Millett heard that the Chinese believed American soldiers were afraid to use their bayonets. So, he had Company E practice bayonet and hand-to-hand combat drills several times a day.
“I told the men that the next time we went into battle,” Millett stated, “we’d be attacking using fixed bayonets, and we did.”
On February 7, 1951, Chinese soldiers, fortified on a hill, pinned down Millett’s company. He responded in a way that the enemy least expected: he assaulted their position with fixed bayonets. Millett lobbed grenades and clubbed and bayonetted enemy soldiers as he led his men forward. He received wounds from grenade fragments but refused evacuation. His company suffered the loss of four men but killed 47 enemy soldiers and captured the crest of the hill, later christened “Bayonet Hill.” Millett’s assault was the last bayonet charge in U.S. history.
On July 15, 1951, President Harry Truman presented Millett with the Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action.” The Model 1943 bayonet from Millett’s M1 Garand is on display at the Medal of Honor Gallery at the National Guard Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Hal Moore (Vietnam War)
In the film We Were Soldiers (2002), Lt. Colonel Harold “Hal” Moore (Mel Gibson) is visible carrying an M16. The real-life Moore would have been issued a Colt M1911A1 during the Vietnam War, but he always carried an M16 in combat.
“He was an expert shot and preferred the rifle,” his son, Steve, stated.
That’s what Moore was armed with when he led the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment on a search-and-destroy operation into Vietnam’s Ia Drang River Valley on November 14, 1965.
Moore was the first man on the ground at landing zone LZ X-Ray. Shortly after helicopters dropped off 150 American soldiers of Company B, three North Vietnamese Army battalions of 1,600 soldiers attacked. Moore skillfully positioned his troops and reinforcements to defend his perimeter.
At different periods during the battle, Moore joined his companies on the front line, firing his M16. In one instance, he found himself in the forwardmost position and unloaded an entire clip of his 1911.
“The bullets were whizzing around my head like a swarm of bees,” Moore remembered. “The sergeant major clapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Sir, if you don’t find some cover you’re going down. And if you go down, we all go down.”
The American defenders fought off the overwhelming North Vietnamese numbers for three days and two nights. Moore’s battalion had 79 killed and 121 wounded. The enemy left behind over 600 dead. Moore was the last American to leave LZ X-Ray.
In 1966, Moore was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism and gallantry at Ia Drang.
Feature image of Cold Steel by Don Stivers. Courtesy of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library.
Beattie, Taylor V. “Sergeant Alvin York: Personal Accounts That Reveal His True Story.” HistoryNet.com. Accessed November 1, 2022. https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/sergeant-alvin-york-personal-accounts-that-reveal-his-true-story/.
Builder Carl H., Steven C. Bankes and Richard Nordin. “No Time for Reflection: Moore at Ia Drang.” In Command Concepts: A Theory Derived from the Practice of Command and Control, 89-102. Washington, D.C.: RAND Corporation, 1999.
Dudek, John Bryan. “Born to Fighting: Colonel Lewis Millett.” HistoryNet.com. July 24, 2018. https://www.historynet.com/born-fight-colonel-lewis-millett/.
Hull, Michael D. “Audie Murphy: Most Highly Decorated.” HistoryNet.com. Accessed November 1, 2022. https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/article/audie-murphy-most-highly-decorated/.
Kinzer, Stephen. The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2017.
Murphy, Audie. To Hell and Back. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1949.
York, Alvin. His Own Life Story and War Diary. Edited by Tom Skeyhill. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., 1938.