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.