Harrison Summers: "Sergeant York of World War II"
There are many stories recorded in the history books of daring and courageous deeds performed by the men of D-Day. Dick Winters of the 101st airborne, James Earl Rudder who led the boys of Pointe du Hoc, and the gallant Lord Lovat with his commandos, to name just a few. But one of my very favorite stories, is that of Sergeant Harrison C. Summers.
Harrison Summers was born in the small town of Catawba, Marion Country, West Virginia, in July 12, 1918. Before the war he would work at the coal mine in the near-by town of Rivesville. On June 6th, 1944, he jumped into Normandy as part of 1st Battalion, 502nd PIR (101 Airborne). From there his story becomes so incredible that I will leave it to Stephen Ambrose to tell it in his book, D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II.
Inland by about a kilometer from St-Martin-de-Varreville there was a group of buildings holding a German coastal-artillery barracks, known to the Americans from its map signification as WXYZ. Lt. Col. Patrick Cassidy, commanding the 1st Battalion of the 502nd, short of men and with a variety of missions to perform, sent Sgt. Harrison Summers of West Virginia with fifteen men to capture the barracks. That was not much of a force to rake on a full-strength German company, but it was all Cassidy could spare.
Summers set out immediately, not even taking the time to learn the names of the men he was leading, who were showing considerable reluctance to follow this unknown sergeant. Summers grabbed one man, Sgt. Leland Baker, and told him, "Go up to the top of this rise and watch in that direction and don't let anything come over that hill and get on my flank. Stay there until you're told to come back." Baker did as ordered.
Summers then went to work, charging the first farmhouse, hoping his hodgepodge squad would follow. It did not, but he kicked in the door and sprayed the interior with his tommy gun. Four Germans fell dead, others ran out a back door to the next house. Summers, still alone, charged that house; again the Germans fled. His example inspired Pvt. William Burt to come out of the roadside ditch where the group was hiding, set up his light machine gun, and begin laying down a suppressing fire against the third barracks building.
Once more Summers dashed forward. The Germans were ready this time; they shot at him from loopholes but, what with Burt's machine-gun fire and Summers's zigzag running, failed to hit him. Summers kicked in the door and sprayed the interior, killing six Germans and driving the remainder out of the building.
Summers dropped to the ground, exhausted and in emotional shock. He rested for half an hour. His squad came up and replenished his ammunition supply. As he rose to go on, an unknown captain from the 101st, mis-dropped by miles, appeared at his side. "I'll go with you," said the captain. At that instant he was shot through the heart and Summers was again alone. He charged another building, killing six more Germans. The rest threw up their hands. Summers's squad was close behind; he turned the prisoners over to his men.
One of them, Pvt. John Camien from New York City, called out to Summers: "Why are you doing it?"
"I can't tell you," Summers replied.
"What about the others?"
"They don't seem to want to fight," said Summers, "and I can't make them. So I've got to finish it."
"OK," said Camien. "I'm with you."
Together, Summers and Camien moved from building to building, taking turns charging and giving covering fire. Burt meanwhile moved up with his machine gun. Between the three of them, they killed more Germans.
There were two buildings to go. Summers charged the first and kicked the door open, to see the most improbable sight. Fifteen German artillerymen were seated at mess tables eating breakfast. Summers never paused; he shot them down at the tables.
The last building was the largest. Beside it was a shed and a haystack. Burt used tracer bullets to set them ablaze. The shed was used by the Germans for ammunition storage; it quickly exploded, driving thirty Germans out into the open, where Summers, Camien, and Burt shot some of them down as the others fled.
Another member of Summers's makeshift squad came up. He had a bazooka, which he used to set the roof of the last building on fire. The Germans on the ground floor were filing a steady fusillade from loopholes in the trails, but as the flames began to build they dashed out. Many died in the open. Thirty-one others emerged with raised hands to offer their surrender.
Summers collapsed, exhausted by his nearly five hours of combat. He lit a cigarette. One of the men asked him, "How do you feel?"
"Not very good." Summers answered. "It was all kind of crazy. I'm sure I'll never do anything like that again.”
Summers got a battlefield commission and a Distinguished Service Cross. He was put in for the Medal of Honor, but the paperwork got lost. In the late 1980s, after Summers's death from cancer, Pry. Baker and others made an effort to get the medal awarded posthumously, without success. Summers is a legend with American paratroopers nonetheless, the Sergeant York of World War II. His story has too much John Wayne/Hollywood in it to be believed, except that more than ten men saw and reported his exploits. (pp 297-99)
After D-Day, Summers went on to fight at Operation Market Garden in Holland, where he was wounded and received a purple heart. But it doesn't even end there. This hero of D-Day was sent back into action and was wounded again in Bastogne, receiving another purple heart.
Following the end of the war, Summers returned to work in the coal mines of West Virginia and lived out his life there until he died of lung cancer in 1983. Though he was described as "a laughing boy in uniform", and a “tiger in combat," when he went home, he kept many of his experiences to himself. Despite never officially being recognized by the U.S. government for his valorous acts of courage and daring, his story is one which really ranks high in my books as one of dauntless audacity. He did not have time to be dismayed when all around failed to do their duty. Instead, taking it upon himself to complete the mission, alone, if needed, he made a name for himself that will be remembered for a long time to come.