At age 95, Robert Maxwell is the oldest living recipient of the United States Congressional Medal of Honor, and one of the most humble people I’ve ever met. I had the pleasure to meet him at a Band of Brothers meeting in Bend, Oregon, and he agreed to tell me his story.
Born in Boise, Idaho in 1920, Bob’s parents separated when he was a baby. His mom was a traveling saleswoman, so he was raised by his grandparents on a farm in Quinter, Kansas. His earliest memories are of helping to weed and harvest crops, gather eggs, feeding chickens and pigs, and milking cows.
“My aunts and uncles treated me like a little brother,” he said. “When I was about 10, my uncles found a runnable car. We took off the body, put a bench seat over the gas tank, and rode all over the farm on that thing.” Bob cracks a smile and sits back in his chair at our table in the dining hall at Aspen Ridge Retirement Home.
In seventh grade, Bob had to leave school since his family needed his help on the farm. During the summers, his grandpa kept the farm going while he and his “big brothers” traveled to Willamette and Puget Sound, Oregon where they got paid to pick fruit.
One Sunday in 1937, when Bob was 15, a huge dust cloud blew in from Nebraska through Kansas. Fierce winds blew all day and most of the night. The air was so thick with dust; midday could have been midnight. He and his brothers wore scarves on their faces and held onto a rope to get to the barn to feed the animals. When the ferocious gale finally waned, buildings were buried up to the eaves. All the top soil had gone, leaving bedrock too hard to replant. Along with many Dust Bowl survivors, Bob’s family packed up to find a place where they could make a living.
They decided to go to Oregon, but by the time they made it to Colorado, Bob’s grandpa had fallen ill. The boys worked on a cattle ranch for a year before setting out again for Oregon; however, close to the base of the Rocky Mountains, his grandpa got sick again. They couldn’t continue to travel, so the family found a timber ranch where they supplied railroad ties and support frames for mine shafts, harvested Christmas trees, made fence posts, and bundled scraps to sell as firewood. Then in June of 1941, Bob got a letter telling him to report for service in the United States Army. Raised in the Quaker faith, the army offered Bob “Conscientious Objector” status, but he refused saying it was a privilege to fight for his country.
Used to hard work, Bob underwent 13 weeks of intensive training at Camp Roberts in Central California. He specialized in operating a 30 caliber water-cooled machine gun on three-man crew. From there, he went to Maryland to spend another 14 weeks at Fort Meade to learn advanced infantry tactics.
By February of 1942, Bob had boarded a ship and landed in North Africa at Casablanca, 19 months before D-Day, where he believes World War II actually began. Four months after the Third Infantry seized Casa Blanca from the Germans, Bob joined the advancing company as a wire man. “Because that’s what was needed,” he says. Forget firing big guns the way he’d been trained. Since radios were easily jammed by the Germans, Bob lay wire from the battalion to the switchboard, so the company commander could call in firing orders via telephone.
From Casablanca, the Third Infantry made their way through Italy where they fought under General Patton and took Sicily in 38 days. American divisions and British units fought side-by-side to secure the island. After the victory in Sicily, Bob’s infantry traveled by water and continued to Naples where they fought until the Italians surrendered and joined the Allied forces.
Early 1944, Bob’s infantry landed south of Rome, in Anzio, to establish a beachhead, where Bob would earn his first purple heart. Although the Allies caught the German’s by surprise for another victory, Bob got injured. He was taken to the hospital in Naples on January 29. On June 5, the day before D-Day in Normandy, Bob was released from the hospital to rejoin his battalion when they came back through Naples.
In August of the same year, U.S. troops headed north along the Rhone River, up through southern France to Besançon, where they joined forces with English soldiers who had been traveling south. The night of September 7, 1944, Bob was on a roof, stringing wire from house to house to the battalion commander’s phone line when a German gun crew attacked the Battalion Command Post from a ditch near the railroad track. Bob didn’t bother climbing down; he jumped off the roof to avoid getting shot and frantically continued hooking up phone lines.
He came upon four infantry men and a radio guy crouched below a 4-foot stone wall shooting .45 caliber pistols at the attackers. Bob joined the fray, firing his own gun at the sparks in the dark. A grenade landed near Bob’s feet and rolled. He dropped where he was, hoping to fall on top of it and cushion the blast to save the other five men.
“I must have kicked [the grenade],” remembers Bob, “because it blew a hole in my steel-toed boot and tore up my foot.”
Again admitted to the hospital in Naples, doctor’s repaired Bob’s right foot, but shrapnel had hit his temple; he couldn’t see out of his left eye. Hoping doctors in the States could safely remove the shrapnel and restore his eyesight, the U.S. Army sent him home.
Once back in the states, a surgeon removed the metal fragments from Bob’s temple, and his eye regained the ability to see. For his acts of heroism, seven months later, on April 6, 1945, Robert Maxwell was awarded the United States Congressional Medal of Honor as well as his second Silver Star and Purple Heart medals in Denver, Colorado. Bob was also awarded the “Legion of Honor” by the French government on a French frigate near Norfolk, VA.
By then, his grandfather had died, and his grandmother had moved to Creswell, Oregon with his two uncles to work another farm.
“I took one look at that farm and turned around and enrolled in vocational school in Eugene,” Bob recalls with a chuckle. “No more farming for me.”
After two years’ training as an auto mechanic, Bob did a two-year apprenticeship for Oldsmobile in Redmond, Oregon. During this time, he met Beatrice who would become his life-long love. After the apprenticeship, he got a full-time job working for Ford, and a year later, on August 12, 1951, he and Beatrice got married at Redmond Christian Church.
While working under a Ford truck, the manager for the new Central Oregon College Mechanics Department (COC) wandered into the shop to offer Bob a teaching position. Bea pushed him to take the job as she thought it would be safer for him to teach than to work on cars. Since Bob’s formal education had ended in the seventh grade, in order to accept the teaching position, he took and passed the test to get his GED. During the winter and spring semesters, he taught, wrote curriculum, collected equipment, and found cars for his students to work on. In the summers, he took classes at Corvallis State College to eventually earn a degree in Industrial Education. Bob also taught auto mechanics classes at Bend High School in the 1950s.
“Bob was my scout leader [in Redmond, 1955],” says Wes Woofhiser, friend and fellow Band of Brothers member. “I damaged a car and Bob fixed it.”
Bob spent nine years at COC and then moved his family to Eugene, Oregon to begin an auto mechanics’ program at Lane Community College. By the time the Maxwells moved to Eugene, Bob and Bea had three daughters, two natural and one adopted. Bea had miscarried their third child, so they fostered Bonnie – and they fell in love with her. They adopted Bonnie in 1968. A year later, they fostered Rosie and decided they couldn’t live without this baby girl either, so at 18 months old, Rosie became the sixth Maxwell family member.
Bob retired from his position at Lane Community College in 1986, but he continued working for two more years until the college could find someone to replace him. Since the girls were grown and on their own, in 1991 he and his wife moved to Boise, Idaho where they established the Medal of Honor Scholarship program at Boise Bible College.
On vacation in Bend, Oregon one summer, they enjoyed themselves so much that they decided to move there in 1995. They lived happily in Bend for almost 20 years. In fact, Bob graduated from Bend Senior High School in 2011 where he is a “Distinguished Alumni”. Sadly, though ten years Bob’s junior, Bea passed away April 10, 2015. She is dearly missed by family and friends – especially Bob. Still he manages to participate in his community.
On October 24 of this year, the day before his 95th birthday, Mr. Robert D. Maxwell, our nation’s oldest living Medal of Honor recipient spoke at the Noon Dedication of the Oregon Medal of Honor Exhibit at Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in Mc Minnville, Oregon (where the Spruce Goose is on display). Currently, Bob is also Director for the Bend Heroes Foundation.
Thank God back in 1944 Bob kicked that grenade in the dark rather than of landing on top of it. The world is a better place with the four wonderful daughters he and Bea raised together, the hundreds of kids he taught how to work on cars, and the kindness and humility with which he treats everyone he meets.