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Epilogue

Wilburn K. Ross passed away at the age of 94 on May 9, 2017 in Tacoma, Washington.

Washington Post Article

 

 
 

The 2nd Battalion portion of the 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment yearbook published in 1954 contains a photograph showing a tall master sergeant lighting a cigarette for the Battalion Commander, LTC Edwin W. Reynolds.  The caption indicates that the NCO is Wilburn K. Ross, Medal of Honor winner.  Here is the story of the most highly decorated soldier to ever serve at Daley Barracks, Bad Kissingen.

Wilburn K. Ross -  Silent American Hero

PVT Wilburn K. Ross was drafted into the Army in 1942.  He left his home  in Strunk, Kentucky, and in less than a year, while assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division, saw action first at Casablanca, Morocco and then campaigned with his unit thru five combat landings in Sicily, Italy, France and on into Germany.  While a soldier of some note, it was for his actions in the Vosges region in northeastern France, that Ross received the nation’s highest combat medal.

Private Ross' official Medal of Honor citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty near St. Jacques, France. At 11:30 a.m. on 30 October 1944, after his company had lost 55 out of 88 men in an attack on an entrenched, full-strength German company of elite mountain troops, Pvt. Ross placed his light machinegun 10 yards in advance of the foremost supporting riflemen in order to absorb the initial impact of an enemy counterattack. With machinegun and small-arms fire striking the earth near him, he fired with deadly effect on the assaulting force and repelled it. Despite the hail of automatic fire and the explosion of rifle grenades within a stone's throw of his position, he continued to man his machinegun alone, holding off 6 more German attacks. When the eighth assault was launched, most of his supporting riflemen were out of ammunition. They took positions in echelon behind Pvt. Ross and crawled up, during the attack, to extract a few rounds of ammunition from his machinegun ammunition belt. Pvt. Ross fought on virtually without assistance and, despite the fact that enemy grenadiers crawled to within 4 yards of his position in an effort to kill him with hand grenades, he again directed accurate and deadly fire on the hostile force and hurled it back. After expending his last rounds, Pvt. Ross was advised to withdraw to the company command post, together with 8 surviving riflemen, but, as more ammunition was expected, he declined to do so. The Germans launched their last all-out attack, converging their fire on Pvt. Ross in a desperate attempt to destroy the machinegun which stood between them and a decisive breakthrough. As his supporting riflemen fixed bayonets for a last-ditch stand, fresh ammunition arrived and was brought to Pvt. Ross just as the advance assault elements were about to swarm over his position. He opened murderous fire on the oncoming enemy; killed 40 and wounded 10 of the attacking force; broke the assault single-handedly, and forced the Germans to withdraw. Having killed or wounded at least 58 Germans in more than 5 hours of continuous combat and saved the remnants of his company from destruction, Pvt. Ross remained at his post that night and the following day for a total of 36 hours. His actions throughout this engagement were an inspiration to his comrades and maintained the high traditions of the military service. ***

With the end of the war, PFC Ross and the 30th Infantry Regiment, were near Nuremberg Germany.   He was feted in a special awards ceremony on April 14th 1945 along with four other CMH winners in the Division.

Even for heroes, demobilization came quickly and by early Summer 1945, Ross was being processed thu an Army discharge center at Camp Atterbury, Indiana.  Local newspapers reported that he simply blended into the crowds of other soldiers at the center and when pressed for a statement about his wartime exploits, he simply pulled from his wallet, an account of his actions and awards as written a few weeks earlier in the 3rd Infantry Division newspaper and said, “ well, this tells all about it. “   Locally, the papers were full of comparisons between the soft spoken hero and a similar hero from twenty five years earlier, Sgt. Alvin York.  Ross liked to tell the story of how he once lost a stripe by leading an unauthorized patrol into Rome in search of Vino.

Wilburn Ross wanted nothing more than to return to his family, find work and in particular, to be reunited with his brother,  Orenthral, a wounded veteran of fighting in the Pacific.  However, everyone loves a war hero and this was certainly the case in Kentucky. 

That June, the town of Stearns Kentucky turned out to honor Ross.  There were three thousand spectators, noted speakers were the Governor, the Attorney General and invited military dignitaries from Fort Knox.   Ross received the honorary titles of  both a “ Kentucky Colonel “ and “ Private in the Highway Patrol “.  There were jokes and back slaps, Attorney General Drummit noted that the position of Colonel  required that Ross never had participated in a duel, eighteen months of combat in Europe notwithstanding.  Also on the platform, Alvin York had made the trip over from Tennessee.  Accounts reported that Ross nervously smoked thru much of the affair and as usual, was a private man in a public space.

The next few years for Wilburn K. Ross did not lead to a steady civilian career.  In fact, by 1948, he had enlisted in the Air Force and in rapid fashion, transferred back to the Army and promoted several grades, probably in keeping with his superiors not wanting such a highly decorated soldier returned to the ranks of the junior enlisted troops.

Events surrounding the now Master Sergeant Ross were widely reported in the papers in the early Summer of 1950 when, while training with the 2nd Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, he was injured by a  flash - bang simulator just as it fired.  He received moderate burns and was on limited duty for a week.  Oddly, however, almost no mention was given to the severe wounds he received by machinegun fire only a few weeks later at Pusan in Korea.  He was evacuated and convalesced for a considerable period back in the states.  Once fit for duty, Ross was posted as an instructor at the Infantry School at Fort Benning and this brings us to the early 1950s and his service at Daley Barracks.

On 12 April, 1953, Stars and Stripes reported that Medal of Honor winner, Master Sergeant Wilburn K. Ross had been assigned to the 14th Armored Cavalry.  The article recalled his heroism in Germany with brief mention of his further career in the Army.

This brings us to Ross in the 14th Cav yearbook, he appears in two photographs, one with Battalion Commander Reynolds and a second, a cameo, as one of two Master Sergeants assigned to Recon Company E.

Carl L. Espy, a platoon leader in Company E at the time, recalls MSG Ross:

“ Back in those days, almost all of the Captains and above had seen action in World War II or Korea, same was true for the mid grade and senior NCOs but no one had ever served with a Medal of Honor holder.  This really was a big deal, he was introduced to the battalion at a formation and then assigned to Company E.  Also, back in those days, it was not uncommon for a unit to have several Master Sergeants assigned, there were a variety of jobs, First Sergeant, Training NCO, Mess NCO, liaison NCO - it just depended on what spots were open and who was available for assignment. “

“ I recall MSG Ross as a man of very few words, he was not really interested in manuals, schedules, rosters and forms, all the things that more or less happened in the Orderly Room.  The CO may have given him a try - out as First Sergeant but this did not last too long.  Maybe he also had a shot as the training NCO but I do not think that lasted too long either.  The liaison NCO responsibilities included visiting each staff section at HQ each day - picking up the messages and mail, seeing if they needed anything from us.  In the field, responsibilities were similar, he was also responsible for making contact with adjacent units as necessary.  I think this is the job he held for the longest period but, I also think he was out of the company in less than a year. “

Of some note, the 14th Cavalry yearbook published in 1955 was organized much differently than previous editions.  Gone were both cameo and group photos of individuals.  Each battalion had a single page devoted to recalling significant events of the previous year as well as personnel who had distinguished themselves and there is no mention of Ross.

The next duty stations and assignments of MSG Ross are not known.  The newspapers and wire services that usually tracked his movements did not mention his name again until the early 1960s when he announced his plans to retire from the Army.  Stars and Stripes Pacific reported in Dec 1963, that Ross had been at Schofield Barracks for a year, serving as the Weapons Platoon Sergeant of Company B, 1st Bn, 5th Infantry Dv since Oct. 1962.  The article then detailed the events that led to the Medal of Honor.  A few months later, another article stated that a formation of two thousand men from the Division were assembled for his formal retirement ceremony.   Ross was quoted as saying, “ after twenty years in the Army, I finally could afford to retire. “

After a period of traveling, Wilburn Ross settled in Washington state, home of his wife and together, they raised five children.  He took a job driving a patient shuttle bus at the VA Hospital near Tacoma.  He was often the guest of honor at various local ceremonies honoring veterans. 

In 1983, the US Postal Service issued a new twenty cent stamp honoring MoH winners and Ross was selected as a recipient who “ most exemplified those qualities and attributes worthy of the medal “.  As part of the celebration Ross was presented with the first issued Medal of Honor stamp on the first day cover.  He was 61 years old. 

Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation , published in 1998 to great popular acclaim led to America widely taking note of the passing away of the World War II generation.  Increasingly, ceremonies to honor aging veterans were held culminating in the long awaited opening of the National World War II monument in Washington DC in 2004.  Often times, Medal of Honor winners were featured guests and in this capacity, Wilburn K. Ross found a new, post retirement career 

Considering his advanced years, Ross is in remarkably good health and quite able to travel.  Through the 1990s and still active today, as one of the last ten surviving MoH winners from World War II and probably the most fit of the group, he makes dozens of public appearances each year.  He is often the guest of the 3rd Infantry Division Veteran’s Society and has appeared at functions hosted by the 1st Squadron  - 14th Cavalry at Fort Lewis.  Ever the man of few words, after he is introduced,  he tips hat and silently waves to the audience.

May 2017 

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