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Vernon McGarity, awarded Medal of Honor, dies at 91

Vernon McGarity, an Army sergeant awarded the Medal of Honor for his intrepid leadership of his frozen, outgunned squad until he was taken prisoner during the historic Battle of the Bulge, died Tuesday at a hospice in Memphis, Tenn. He was 91.

He had cancer, said his daughter-in-law, Lee McGarity.

McGarity rarely spoke about the events that began on the morning of Dec. 16, 1944. At the time, the Allies were pushing toward Germany as the Wehrmacht suffered setbacks on both the Eastern and Western fronts.

The Germans decided to launch a surprise attack in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium -- an epic last-ditch offensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The most complete account of McGarity's actions there is the citation for his Medal of Honor, awarded to him by President Harry S. Truman after the end of the war in 1945.

McGarity was positioned near Krinkelt, Belgium, with the 99th Infantry Division. Before the ground battle started, he was wounded in an artillery barrage. He refused medical evacuation and instead returned to his men, according to the citation, where "the fury of the enemy's great Western Front offensive swirled about the position."

Despite the intense hostile fire and the frigid conditions of a record cold Belgian winter, McGarity managed to rescue a wounded friend, one of at least two rescue efforts during the fight. As the night wore on, the citation reads, he "exhorted his comrades to repulse the enemy's attempts at infiltration."

The morning brought an even fiercer assault by German tanks and infantry, and McGarity used a rocket launcher to take out the lead tank. His squad drove back the infantry and three other tanks. Still under heavy fire, McGarity rescued another wounded soldier and then took on an enemy light cannon.

"Now, could he take a breather?" reads a 1970 tribute to McGarity in Checkerboard, a publication of the 99th Infantry Division Association. "Not on your life -- his squad's ammunition was running low." McGarity moved 100 yards toward the enemy to retrieve a hidden cache of ammunition. By that time, a German machine gun was trained on what would have been his way out. "Unhesitatingly," the citation reads, "the gallant soldier took it upon himself to destroy this menace single-handedly." Armed with a rifle, he killed or wounded all the gunners.

McGarity and his men fought until they had depleted their last rounds.

"I was still holding," the Memphis Commercial Appeal quoted him as saying years later, "and did hold until such time as we ran out of ammunition and it was necessary to surrender." McGarity was captured and spent much of the rest of the war in captivity.

After the war, he served in the Tennessee National Guard for 28 years, achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel, according to his daughter-in-law.

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