Thomas Vernon McGarity was born in the rural town of Right, Tennessee in December 1921. Like many young men during the Depression, McGarity joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930s. A week before his 21st birthday in 1942, McGarity was drafted. He had married Ethelene Nunn that year, and in mid-December the couple’s newborn died at just one day old. McGarity had little time to grieve, as boot camp and subsequent training ramped up.
McGarity joined the newly activated 393rd Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division, which had been activated November 15, 1942, at Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi. In January 1943, 13 weeks of basic training was followed by maneuvers in Louisiana and Texas. The regiment trained throughout 1943 and most of 1944, finally preparing to ship overseas in September. Just as McGarity left for England, his wife gave birth to a girl. As with many babies born to servicemen, she would not see her father for nearly a year. The 393rd arrived in England, taking up residence in camps abandoned by troops who had taken part in the June 1944 landings in northern France. Their stay was brief, arriving in early October. On November 4, the regiment arrived in Le Havre, France and moved immediately into Belgium. There, V-1 rockets roared overhead, a futuristic reminder that war lay ahead.
In December, McGarity, then a squad leader in the 3rd Platoon, L Company, was part of the defensive line near Krinkelt, Belgium. The first half of December had been filled with patrols, skirmishes, and artillery barrages as both sides adjusted to the bitter winter conditions. German forces in the area were waiting for the orders to begin a major offensive, known after as the Battle of the Bulge. On the morning of December 16, troops of the 277th Volksgrenadier Division attacked the outposts of the 99th Division. McGarity was severely wounded in an artillery barrage and was forced to find an aid station for treatment. Wounded so severely on his face and legs, medical personnel attempted to have McGarity evacuated. He refused. As many men were to do in the following weeks, McGarity left the aid station and returned, wounded, to the front lines. His men needed him, and he would not abandon them with the German army bearing down on their positions.
Returning to the line near Krinkelt, McGarity’s bravery became a source of inspiration and a morale booster to his men. Repeatedly he put his life on the line to save other GIs. Without concern for his own well-being he disabled a German tank with a bazooka and repeatedly put himself in harm's way to resupply his men with ammunition. One fellow GI noted that “While under intense fire in securing the ammunition, Sergeant McGarity had the presence of mind to locate several snipers who were subsequently killed by his accurate fire after return to his position.” Later interviews with men in his unit credit his “superior tact and ability to lead his men” to his squad receiving only one additional casualty on December 16. McGarity’s squad fought valiantly, holding off German forces until December 17. With their ammunition supply exhausted, McGarity and his squad were taken prisoner. Their determined stand had allowed American troops to reinforce the line to the west, helping to hold off German forces. McGarity spent the rest of the war as a POW in the Moosburg camp (Stalag VII-A).
Liberated in April 1945, McGarity had been recommended for the Medal of Honor in January. He was awarded the Medal by President Harry S. Truman in a ceremony at the White House on December 18, 1945, along with recipients from the battles of Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and other European engagements. McGarity left active duty in 1947, and joined the Tennessee Army National Guard, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel before his retirement in 1974.
Technical Sergeant (then Staff Sergeant) Thomas Vernon McGarity Medal of Honor Citation
“He was painfully wounded in an artillery barrage that preceded the powerful counteroffensive launched by the Germans near Krinkelt, Belgium, on the morning of 16 December 1944. He made his way to an aid station, received treatment, and then refused to be evacuated, choosing to return to his hard-pressed men instead. The fury of the enemy's great Western Front offensive swirled about the position held by T/Sgt. McGarity's small force, but so tenaciously did these men fight on orders to stand firm at all costs that they could not be dislodged despite murderous enemy fire and the breakdown of their communications. During the day the heroic squad leader rescued one of his friends who had been wounded in a forward position, and throughout the night he exhorted his comrades to repulse the enemy's attempts of infiltration. When morning came and the Germans attacked with tanks and infantry, he braved heavy fire to run to an advantageous position where he immobilized the enemy's lead tank with a round from a rocket launcher. Fire from his squad drove the attacking infantrymen back, and three supporting tanks withdrew. He rescued, under heavy fire, another wounded American, and then directed devastating fire on a light cannon which had been brought up by the hostile troops to clear resistance from the area. When ammunition began to run low, T/Sgt. McGarity, remembering an old ammunition hole about 100 yards distant in the general direction of the enemy, braved a concentration of hostile fire to replenish his unit's supply. By circuitous route the enemy managed to emplace a machine gun to the rear and flank of the squad's position, cutting off the only escape route. Unhesitatingly, the gallant soldier took it upon himself to destroy this menace singlehandedly. He left cover, and while under steady fire from the enemy, killed or wounded all the hostile gunners with deadly accurate rifle fire, and prevented all attempts to re-man the gun. Only when his squad's last round had been fired was the enemy able to advance and capture the intrepid leader and his men. The extraordinary bravery and extreme devotion to duty of T/Sgt. McGarity supported a remarkable delaying action which provided the time necessary for assembling reserves and forming a line against which the German striking power was shattered.”
WWII Medal of Honor Recipients
Our Nation’s highest military award for valor is given for action above and beyond the call of duty. This topic covers the stories of WWII Medal of Honor recipients.