“He opened murderous fire on the oncoming enemy.” The young lieutenant who wrote the Medal of Honor citation for Wilburn Ross certainly had a flair for words. But then again, it couldn’t have been an easy task to find words that could give justice to the events he witnessed on October 30th, 1944 near St. Jacques, France.
The citation goes on to state that Private Ross “killed 40 and wounded 10 of the attacking force; broke the assault single-handedly, and forced the Germans to withdraw.” Even after he and the few remaining soldiers with him ran out of ammunition, they fixed bayonets in preparation for the next wave of Germans. Even after the five-hour battle came to an end, Ross manned his post for another 31 hours before finally being relieved. It was a long, bloody affair that saw 55 of the 88 soldiers assigned to G company, 350th Infantry killed in action, but Private Ross was credited with single handedly breaking the German assault and saving the rest of his company from sure destruction.
For someone who would one day be recognized as a bona fide war hero, Ross was a reluctant soldier in the beginning. He grew up in the backwoods of Kentucky, always in pursuit of a new adventure with his trusted .22 caliber rifle in tow. At the age of eighteen, he started working in a coal mine. A year later he was training as a welder, which led him to Norfolk, Virginia for a job building ships. That’s where he received his first draft notice in 1942, which was promptly disregarded. But after the second notice to report arrived, Ross finally obliged.
The battle just outside of St. Jacques that lead to his Medal of Honor wouldn’t be his only close brush with the enemy though. About a month before the incident he took shrapnel to the face, which he responded to by spitting out two of his teeth and doing just what a good infantryman would do: run towards the sound of gunfire. In another engagement, he was knocked out cold for six hours during an enemy rocket attack. “I was lying down. I had my steel pot on.” He said during an interview in 2013. “But a big slug cut right through the steel and cut a hole in my head.”
Ross separated from the Army in 1945 after the completion of 18 months of combat with the 3rd Infantry Division, which brought him to North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, Germany and Austria during the war. He returned home to McCreary County, Kentucky where the Governor had a job with the state highway authority waiting for him. But it wasn’t long after that his brother joined the Army, and he followed after him. He joined the Air Force first, but quickly switched back to the Army.
As the poet Jon Treloar said, Once more into the fray. And that’s exactly what Ross did.
Wilburn Ross, now a Master Sergeant, deployed to Korea in 1950. His time there would be short lived though. He sustained a very serious wound from enemy machine gun fire near Pusan, Korea, and was forced to return home to recover. His Army days weren’t over though; he went on to serve in multiple assignments until his retirement in 1964.
Between World War Two and Korea, Wilburn Ross was wounded in battle a total of four times.
After retirement, Ross took some time to travel before returning to his wife’s home in DuPont, Washington where he would live for the next 53 years. Known for being soft-spoken and humble, he took on a job driving a patient shuttle bus for the local VA hospital while helping raise his six children.
On May 9th, 2017, Medal of Honor recipient Wilburn K. Ross passed away at the age of 94. According to the Medal of Honor Society, there are now only 73 living recipients of the nations highest military accolade left.
As news headlines are dominated by the latest and greatest political outrage, it would be prudent for us all to stop and remember the passing of a man who exemplified the best among us. A humble, hard working American who was willing to put everything on the line for his country, but his impact on the spirit of our great nation will live on.