Francis Currey, Who at 19 Was a Hero in Battle, Dies at 94


The town of Malmedy in the Ardennes region of Belgium is remembered for one of the most notorious war crimes against American prisoners in World War II. More than 80 unresisting G.I.s were shot to death on the town’s outskirts by members of a German SS armored division in December 1944, soon after their surrender on the second day of the Battle of the Bulge, a surprise counterattack by the Germans bringing huge Allied casualties along a broad front.

Four days after what became known as the Malmedy massacre, Francis Currey, a lanky 19-year-old Army private in the 30th Infantry Division, carried out an extraordinary feat of arms to repulse an onslaught by the First SS Panzer Division a few miles from where its members had committed the massacre.

“Doughboy Throws Arsenal at Nazis,” read a headline in The New York Times.

Private Currey and other infantrymen were in foxholes, backing up American antitank troops.

The Germans overran the antitank positions. But during the next 24 hours, Private Currey wielded his M-1 rifle, a bazooka, a Browning automatic rifle, two types of machine guns and an assortment of grenades to knock out several German tanks and rescue wounded Americans.

He received the Medal of Honor in July 1945, by which time he had been promoted to sergeant.

The citation said, “Through his extensive knowledge of weapons and by his heroic and repeated braving of murderous enemy fire, Sgt. Currey was greatly responsible for inflicting heavy losses in men and material on the enemy, for rescuing five comrades, two of whom were wounded, and for stemming an attack which threatened to flank his battalion’s position.”

Mr. Currey died on Tuesday at his home in Selkirk, N.Y., near Albany. He was 94. His death, which was confirmed by his son Michael, leaves two veterans who received the Medal of Honor in World War II still living.

Charles Coolidge, 98, was cited for bravery in France while an Army technical sergeant. Hershel Williams, 96, was decorated for heroism in the battle for Iwo Jima while a Marine corporal.

In recalling his exploits of Dec. 21, 1944, long afterward, Mr. Currey once told The Times Union of Albany, “It was just one day of nine months of steady combat.”

But it was an extraordinary day.

The firefight began about 4 a.m. with the American antitank units overrun. Private Currey and at least five other infantrymen, from their division’s 20th Regiment, withdrew to an abandoned factory that had been used as an American military hospital before its doctors and patients were pulled out in the face of the German offensive.

Private Currey and another G.I., braving fire from German infantrymen and tanks, raced across a road and grabbed bazooka rockets and antitank grenades from a smashed American halftrack.

After firing a bazooka to disable a tank, Private Currey shot three Germans in the doorway of a nearby stone house with his Browning weapon, then knocked down part of its wall with his bazooka, collapsing it on the Germans inside.

At that point, he saw that five G.I.s from the antitank unit had been cut off and were being fired on by German armor. He hurled grenades at those tanks, sending their crews fleeing into the remnants of the house, then blasted the house with machine-gun fire, saving the trapped Americans, two of them wounded.

Private Currey, incurring only a minor wound, then joined other squad members in speeding away in a jeep with the two injured soldiers, guided only by dim headlamps in the darkness, with Mr. Currey riding shotgun in case German soldiers spotted them.

“We did not have the slightest idea of where we were in the middle of Belgium,” Mr. Currey was quoted as saying by Michael Collins and Martin King in “Voices of the Bulge” (2011), recalling that nighttime ride.

The G.I.s were, in fact, stopped by another American regiment’s roadblock and suspected of being enemy infiltrators — English-speaking German troops wearing American uniforms.

“They did not believe our story until we talked to someone who had some brains,” Mr. Currey recalled. “The next day they moved us back to our regiment.”

Francis Sherman Currey was born on July 29, 1925, in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y. He was orphaned at 12 and reared by foster parents on a farm in the nearby town of Hurleyville.

He joined the Army in June 1943, a week after graduating from high school, a six-footer but weighing only 130 pounds.

By the time the European war ended, he had been awarded a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for exploits after the events at Malmedy and three Purple Hearts, in addition to his Medal of Honor.

He was later a veterans’ counselor in Albany.

Lt. Col. Joachim Peiper, the commander of the troops who committed the massacre, was tried by an American military tribunal along with many of his men and spent more than 10 years in prison.

In addition to his son Michael, Mr. Currey is survived by his wife, Wilma (French) Currey; another son, Jonathan; his daughter, Kathy Domery; seven grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Currey became the first Medal of Honor recipient to be portrayed as a G.I. Joe action figure. In his later years, he was honored at an annual parade in Hurleyville.

Mr. Currey had become the leader of his 48-member platoon in the final months of his combat duty. But he found it difficult to forge bonds with his men, since they were mostly replacements whom he barely knew. Only four or five soldiers from the original platoon roster were still with him. The toll of casualties had mounted.

“I couldn’t buddy up with anyone outside of them,” Mr. Currey told Gerald Astor for the Battle of the Bulge oral history “A Blood-Dimmed Tide” (1992). “A guy in the platoon was killed and it was horrible, I couldn’t remember his name.”

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