Second to none: Cowan, López, & Soderman (December 17, 1944)

December 17, 1944 was the second day of the Battle of the Bulge, Nazi Germany’s last ditch counter-offensive to stave off defeat in Western Europe at the hands of the Allies. The early days of the offensive were marked by rapid gains by the enemy and stalwart, heroic defenses by the besieged Americans in their path. Three soldiers of the United States Army‘s 2nd Infantry Division were awarded the Medal of Honor for their courage that day.

They were Private First Class Richard E. Cowan, Sergeant José M. López, and Private First Class William A. Soderman.

Richard Eller Cowan was born on December 5, 1922 in Lincoln, Nebraska. He grew up in Wichita, Kansas, and was a student at Oberlin College when he was drafted for service on September 24, 1943. Cowan was a machine gunner with Company M, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment attached to his battalion’s Company I and kept his gun in action despite little support from other infantrymen and enemy rocket and tank attacks.

From Medal of Honor Citations from World War II (A-F):

Medal of Honor ribbon (foreground); World War II European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign ribbon (background)
Medal of Honor ribbon (foreground); World War II European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign ribbon (background)
Richard E. Cowan (Wikipedia)

*COWAN, RICHARD ELLER

Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Army, Company M, 23d Infantry, 2d Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Krinkelter Wald, Belgium, 17 December 1944. Entered service at: Wichita, Kans. G.O. No.: 48, 23 June 1945

Citation: He was a heavy machine gunner in a section attached to Company I in the vicinity of Krinkelter Wald, Belgium, 17 December 1944, when that company was attacked by a numerically superior force of German infantry and tanks. The first 6 waves of hostile infantrymen were repulsed with heavy casualties, but a seventh drive with tanks killed or wounded all but 3 of his section, leaving Pvt. Cowan to man his gun, supported by only 15 to 20 riflemen of Company I. He maintained his position, holding off the Germans until the rest of the shattered force had set up a new line along a firebreak. Then, unaided, he moved his machinegun and ammunition to the second position. At the approach of a Royal Tiger tank, he held his fire until about 80 enemy infantrymen supporting the tank appeared at a distance of about 150 yards. His first burst killed or wounded about half of these infantrymen. His position was rocked by an 88mm. shell when the tank opened fire, but he continued to man his gun, pouring deadly fire into the Germans when they again advanced. He was barely missed by another shell. Fire from three machineguns and innumerable small arms struck all about him; an enemy rocket shook him badly, but did not drive him from his gun. Infiltration by the enemy had by this time made the position untenable, and the order was given to withdraw. Pvt. Cowan was the last man to leave, voluntarily covering the withdrawal of his remaining comrades. His heroic actions were entirely responsible for allowing the remaining men to retire successfully from the scene of their last-ditch stand.

PFC Cowan was killed in action later on December 17th. His remains were repatriated to the United States, and he rests in peace in the Wichita Park Cemetery, Wichita, Kansas.

Jóse Mendoza López was born in Santiago Ihuitlán Plumas, Oaxaca, Mexico on July 10, 1910. He was sent to live with his uncle’s family in Brownsville, Texas at age eight after the death of his mother. In the 1930s, López was a professional boxer and was a merchant seaman when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He entered the Army in 1942, and was also a member of the 23rd Infantry Regiment in Company K. Like Cowan, López was a machine gunner.

From Medal of Honor Citations from World War II (G-L):

Medal of Honor ribbon (foreground); World War II European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign ribbon (background)
Medal of Honor ribbon (foreground); World War II European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign ribbon (background)
Jóse M. López (Military Times Hall of Valor)

LOPEZ, JOSE M.

Rank and organization: Sergeant, U.S. Army, 23d Infantry, 2d Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Krinkelt, Belgium, 17 December 1944. Entered service at: Brownsville, Tex. G.O. No.: 47, 18 June 1945

Citation: On his own initiative, he carried his heavy machinegun from Company K’s right flank to its left, in order to protect that flank which was in danger of being overrun by advancing enemy infantry supported by tanks. Occupying a shallow hole offering no protection above his waist, he cut down a group of 10 Germans. Ignoring enemy fire from an advancing tank, he held his position and cut down 25 more enemy infantry attempting to turn his flank. Glancing to his right, he saw a large number of infantry swarming in from the front. Although dazed and shaken from enemy artillery fire which had crashed into the ground only a few yards away, he realized that his position soon would be outflanked. Again, alone, he carried his machinegun to a position to the right rear of the sector; enemy tanks and infantry were forcing a withdrawal. Blown over backward by the concussion of enemy fire, he immediately reset his gun and continued his fire. Single-handed he held off the German horde until he was satisfied his company had effected its retirement. Again he loaded his gun on his back and in a hail of small arms fire he ran to a point where a few of his comrades were attempting to set up another defense against the onrushing enemy. He fired from this position until his ammunition was exhausted. Still carrying his gun, he fell back with his small group to Krinkelt. Sgt. Lopez’s gallantry and intrepidity, on seemingly suicidal missions in which he killed at least 100 of the enemy, were almost solely responsible for allowing Company K to avoid being enveloped, to withdraw successfully and to give other forces coming up in support time to build a line which repelled the enemy drive.

López survived the war and left the Army as a Master Sergeant. His native Mexico decorated him with the Condecoración del Mérito Militar. He later worked for the Veterans Administration and passed away on May 16, 2005 at age 94. López was laid to rest with full military honors in the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, San Antonio, Texas.

William Adolph Soderman was born on March 20, 1912 and was living in his native West Haven, Connecticut and working as a meat cutter when he was drafted into the Army on August 23, 1943. Soderman was a bazooka gunner in Company K, 3rd Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment. On December 17, 1945 he repeatedly held off enemy assaults by tanks and infantry with his weapon, receiving serious wounds as a result.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (M-S):

Medal of Honor ribbon (foreground); World War II European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign ribbon (background)
Medal of Honor ribbon (foreground); World War II European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign ribbon (background)
William A. Soderman (Wikipedia)

SODERMAN, WILLIAM A.

Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Army, Company K, 9th Infantry, 2d Infantry Division
Place and date: Near Rocherath, Belgium, 17 December 1944
Entered service at: West Haven, Conn.
G.O. No.: 97, 1 November 1945
Citation: Armed with a bazooka, he defended a key road junction near Rocherath, Belgium, on 17 December 1944, during the German Ardennes counter-offensive. After a heavy artillery barrage had wounded and forced the withdrawal of his assistant, he heard enemy tanks approaching the position where he calmly waited in the gathering darkness of early evening until the 5 Mark V tanks which made up the hostile force were within point blank range. He then stood up, completely disregarding the firepower that could be brought to bear upon him, and launched a rocket into the lead tank, setting it afire and forcing its crew to abandon it as the other tanks pressed on before Pfc. Soderman could reload. The daring bazooka man remained at his post all night under severe artillery, mortar, and machinegun fire, awaiting the next onslaught, which was made shortly after dawn by 5 more tanks Running along a ditch to meet them, he reached an advantageous point and there leaped to the road in full view of the tank gunners, deliberately aimed his weapon and disabled the lead tank. The other vehicles, thwarted by a deep ditch in their attempt to go around the crippled machine, withdrew. While returning to his post Pfc. Soderman, braving heavy fire to attack an enemy infantry platoon from close range, killed at least 3 Germans and wounded several others with a round from his bazooka. By this time, enemy pressure had made Company K’s position untenable. Orders were issued for withdrawal to an assembly area, where Pfc. Soderman was located when he once more heard enemy tanks approaching. Knowing that elements of the company had not completed their disengaging maneuver and were consequently extremely vulnerable to an armored attack, he hurried from his comparatively safe position to meet the tanks. Once more he disabled the lead tank with a single rocket, his last; but before he could reach cover, machinegun bullets from the tank ripped into his right shoulder. Unarmed and seriously wounded he dragged himself along a ditch to the American lines and was evacuated. Through his unfaltering courage against overwhelming odds, Pfc. Soderman contributed in great measure to the defense of Rocherath, exhibiting to a superlative degree the intrepidity and heroism with which American soldiers met and smashed the savage power of the last great German offensive.

Soderman also survived the war and returned home to live the rest of his life in West Haven, where he worked for many years in the local VA hospital. He passed away on October 20, 1980 at age 68 and was buried in his hometown’s Oak Grove Cemetery.

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