Stories of American Heroes - Brought to you from the "Home of Heroes" - Pueblo, Colorado
Hero of the Heartland
By Jerry Delano Cunningham
At first glance, 77 year-old Melvin Biddle wouldn’t fit today’s typecast of a hero. He’s not an athlete, nor has he ever appeared on MTV. Melvin lives a quiet life much like other retired men his age. Known as “Bud” by his friends and family, he enjoys golf and playing cards at the American Legion. In the spring he enjoys tending to the roses in his yard. He’s a family man, married to the same gal for 55 years. Melvin and Leona Biddle raised two daughters and have been blessed with eleven grandchildren. On occasion his grandchildren come over for a backyard cookout. Steaks are the meal of choice when Grandpa does the cooking.
However, there is something that sets Melvin off from other men his age. He dedicates some of his time to signing autograph requests and gives occasional keynote addresses at ceremonial dinners. He has been the Grand Marshal of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. He has an open invitation to attend any future Presidential Inauguration. He has met with numerous State Governors, U. S. Senators and four U.S. Presidents who have expressed their admiration for him. Even though he left the U.S. Army nearly sixty years ago as a lowly Corporal, Generals have saluted him. Despite all of this, Melvin Biddle isn’t wealthy and isn’t a household name. What makes this man unique? Melvin “Bud” Biddle of Anderson, Indiana, is one of only 150 living Congressional Medal of Honor recipients and the only recipient living in Indiana. Melvin Biddle has the distinction of being one of the highest decorated Hoosiers during the World War II. Also he is a recipient of the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the Sagamore of the Wabash.
The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration given to an American soldier. The medal is given to those that have displayed incredible valor in defense of our nation. Only Congress and the President of the United States can bestow the decoration. During World War II only 463 of the 17 million men and women who served were recipients, and more than half of them lost their lives during their acts of heroism. The Congressional Medal of Honor has remained free of politics and social status; sons of Presidents and sharecroppers alike have been recipients.
Seventy-four Hoosiers have been decorated with the Congressional Medal of Honor since its inception during the Civil War. Today only two of those 74 are living. They are Melvin “Bud” Biddle (World War II) and Sammy Davis (Vietnam) who resides in Illinois. Only eight men from Indiana were recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor during World War II. Three of the eight Hoosiers were decorated posthumously, and three have died since the War.
It is rare to meet with a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. I found that if I wished to speak with Melvin, it would require a written request to the Congressional Medal of Honor Association headquartered in South Carolina. Weeks passed after making the request with no response. One morning I received an unexpected telephone call. The magic of caller ID displayed the name Biddle, Melvin. Melvin agreed to meet with me and invited me to his home. I later told my wife I couldn’t have been more nervous speaking to the President.
When I arrived at Melvin’s home in Anderson, I was greeted with a warm handshake and a “let me take your coat.” Inside Melvin’s home there is little to tell you that a war hero lives there. The lone evidence is a crystal block with his name inscribed on it. The crystal is the replica presented to Melvin during the Congressional Medal of Honor Memorial Opening in Indianapolis which sits next to a fiftieth wedding anniversary photograph of Melvin and Leona.
Melvin is much like other veterans I have met. He humbly wanted to talk about the other Congressional Medal of Honor recipients he has known. He told me stories about his long friendship with recipient Gerry Kisters of Bloomington. Kisters, recognized for his actions in Sicily, had attacked a German machine gun position despite being struck five times by enemy fire. The two had traveled to Congressional Medal of Honor reunions over the years.
While relaxing on the couch, Melvin told me of his combat experiences and the act that earned him the highest decoration our country could bestow.
Melvin Biddle was drafted in 1943. He left his job working with his father at Delco and was sent to Camp Attaberry. It was there he volunteered to be a paratrooper. At first his commanders were skeptical about Melvin making it through the physical training he must endure while at Fort Benning, Georgia. Life as a paratrooper was tough to say the least. Each candidate was pushed to physical exhaustion. Once training was completed, they were as physically conditioned as any professional athlete. Melvin had hunted with his father, Owen, while growing up making him handy with a rifle. Despite this, Melvin admits that being around gunfire bothered him in the early stages of his training. Melvin completed the grueling airborne training and was shipped overseas with the 517th Parachute Regiment. He saw combat in Italy and also took part in the invasion of southern France.
In December 1944, the Allies were poised at the German border. They had driven the German army out of France and Belgium and thought the war would be over in a matter of weeks. The 517th had even begun practicing for a victory parade they expected to have when they returned to the States.
Without warning on December 16, 1944, the German army launched a massive counter attack, which would later be known as the “Battle of the Bulge.” In the fog and snow covered hills of the Belgium Ardennes Forest, the attack took the Allies by surprise. The German army intended to hammer a wedge through the unsuspecting American line in an attempt to slice the American and British armies in half and move north to capture the seaport of Antwerp. If the German plan had been successful, the war would have lasted indefinitely. As the German army moved into Belgium, it smashed through the outnumbered American defenses. Units that held their ground were quickly surrounded. The battle was fought in below-zero temperatures. Veterans of the Ardennes Offensive remember most of all the freezing temperatures.
On December 23, 1944, Melvin embarked on the two-day mission that would earn him the Congressional Medal of Honor. That day the 517th was ordered to assist American soldiers desperately holding the town of Hotton. Melvin said, “The Americans trying to hold the town were a group of cooks and clerks who picked up guns and had the guts to fight.” Melvin was the company scout who would lead his unit into the surrounded town. As he moved along, he encountered three German soldiers. Melvin surprised the trio and shot two of the men; the third man ran. Melvin shot the fleeing German twice in the shoulder. Then Melvin led his unit in a close-range battle with the enemy. During the fierce fighting, Melvin was credited for locating two German tanks that were destroyed by members of the 517th.
Actual Photo of
Melvin Biddle's Medal
The following day, Christmas Eve 1944, Melvin led his unit again. Melvin encountered a German soldier on guard patrol. Melvin stated, “He was a young boy about 14 years old; he had been chained to a tree. He had been chained there to keep him from deserting, I guess.” Instead of firing at the boy, Melvin decided to attempt a capture. “When I approached, him he put his hands up.” While stealthily moving forward, Melvin saw the outline of an approaching German patrol. “I could see 15 Germans some distance in front of me.” While his unit moved behind him, Melvin engaged the enemy. The members of Melvin’s unit were unable to assist, because the extreme temperatures caused some of their weapons to malfunction. Alone and armed only with an M1 rifle, Melvin fired at the enemy in an attempt to push them back. When the firing stopped, all 15 members of the German patrol were lying dead in the snow. Demoralized, other Germans in the area fled as the 517th approached.
To those who think that killing another man is something done without feeling or emotion, they are mistaken. When the forward area was secure, Melvin was asked to come and see the enemy soldiers he had killed. Melvin refused. “I’m thankful to this day I made that decision.”
The Americans in Hotton were rescued due in part to one man’s actions while boldly leading his regiment. It’s probable that if Melvin had hesitated and not acted decisively when he encountered the enemy, some of the men in his unit would have been killed or wounded. Melvin told me that while he was in combat, he was afraid. “Fear of dying wasn’t my biggest concern. My biggest fear was not carrying out my responsibilities to the unit.” Fear of failure outweighed his fear of death.
On January 2nd the 517th linked up with elements of the 82nd Airborne Division and moved into the town of Saint Jacques, Belgium. Fighting continued in the snow and freezing temperatures. The fight for the city was fierce. Melvin had lost one of his closest friends Francis Bloom during the night. The Germans were firing with heavy artillery at the Americans. Melvin was lying on the ground just feet away from another American scout. As the artillery continued to rain down on them a shell hit a house near their position. Shrapnel struck Melvin in the neck causing a massive wound. The same shell killed the second American scout. Melvin, evacuated to a field hospital for treatment, was told that the shrapnel had missed his main artery by only half a centimeter.
While recovering in Paris, Melvin was asked by another wounded soldier if he knew the paratrooper who had stopped the Germans in Hotton? Melvin suspected he was talking about him. “I said no.” The soldier then said he heard a rumor that the guy was being put in for the medal. This was the first indication that he was to be recognized. Without Melvin’s knowledge, Capt. Roberts, the company commander, had submitted Pfc. Melvin Biddle for consideration for the Congressional Medal of Honor. When Melvin heard this, he spoke with Capt. Dean Robbins to protest. “I didn’t feel I was deserving.” Robbins told the protesting private, “I’m running this company; you’re not.” Melvin was then dismissed.
When Melvin rejoined his unit, the war was almost over. Like most GIs, Melvin was eager to go back to civilian life and put the war behind him. He returned to Anderson and his job at Delco. In July 1945, word hit the small Indiana town … one of its own was a hero. Melvin was unaware he was to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor until he read it in the local newspaper. A telephone call from Washington following the newspaper account confirmed the news. The Army fitted Melvin with a new uniform and quickly promoted him to the rank of corporal, and arrangements were made for Melvin and his family to travel to the White House.
On August 12, 1945, Melvin Biddle along with 14 other servicemen gathered on the White House lawn. In attendance were such dignitaries as Gen. George Marshall, Gen. Omar Bradley and Adm. Chester Nimitz. President Harry S. Truman placed a powder blue ribbon holding a five-pointed star inscribed with the word valor around Melvin’s neck. President Truman told him, “I would rather have this medal around my neck than be President.” One can only imagine what this moment must have been like for the small-town boy who felt he didn’t deserve such recognition.
While telling the story about his trip to Washington, one thing was clear. Nothing was more rewarding to Melvin than seeing the pride in his father’s eyes. As Melvin and I looked through a photo album, he pointed out photos of his father while they were at the White House. “He doesn’t look proud, does he?” Melvin stated with a laugh. Melvin was right. Even in the black and white photo taken 56 years ago, the smile on Owen Biddle’s face was obviously that of a proud father. The humble factory worker was deserving of this moment; he had raised a hero.
Since that day in 1945, Melvin Biddle has lived with an awesome responsibility. Like all other recipients, he has lived with the certified stamp of a hero. Over the years, requests for public appearances and interviews have continued. Melvin told me requests for autographed pictures come in three to four times a month. Some recipients have felt that earning the Congressional Medal of Honor was easier than living with it. Unlike other combat veterans, it proves difficult to leave the hardship of war behind. The ongoing attention is a constant reminder of an event in a young man’s life where death and destruction were present. The honor Melvin has doesn’t reward him with fame or wealth. Congressional Medal of Honor recipients receive a $600 monthly pension. Melvin told me that when he was invited to Florida for the second Congressional Medal of Honor Convention in 1952, he couldn’t attend. “I was so broke, I couldn’t go for free,” he said with a laugh. Through the years, Melvin has worn his medal with grace and dignity. Melvin told me that all of the Medal of Honor recipients have one thing in common, “None of us feel like we were deserving of the medal”.
Melvin has held several jobs over his lifetime. He has worked in real estate, insurance and as an investigator for the local prosecutor’s office. Melvin even entered politics; he served four years on the Anderson City Council. The job he held for 26 years gave him the most satisfaction. Melvin served with the Veterans Affairs Office, a position that became available by chance. President Truman asked a fellow recipient what he was going to do after service discharge. The soldier stated he wanted to work with the VA but wasn’t sure he could pass the Civil Service exam. President Truman replied, “You just did.” President Truman later signed a directive stating that all recipients of our nation’s highest honor can work for the Veteran’s Administration. Melvin assisted veterans with home loans and disability benefits. Much like the time he spent in combat, Melvin continued to lead other soldiers.
One hundred and fifty Congressional Medal of Honor recipients live in our nation today. They are truly inspiring men. It’s safe to say none of them committed their acts of heroism for attention or decorations. All found themselves in situations where they were required to put their fears aside in the face of near certain death to save another or accomplish an objective. These men should be revered, not just for heroic feats committed on battlefields long ago, but for their unwavering grace and dignity. Few if any have ever brought discredit upon the medal. Many went on to become Governors, Senators and successful businessmen. This was possible not because they were war heroes, but because they each possessed the instincts of a leader. These unique warriors are a vanishing breed. Hopefully, our nation will never require young men to shed their blood in war again thus making the Congressional Medal of Honor unnecessary.
The Medal of Honor recipients now meet twice a year. In May 1999, ninety of them were on hand to act as Grand Marshal of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Shortly before the race began, the recipients were placed in convertibles and driven around the storied two and a half-mile oval. As singer Lee Greenwood sang “God Bless The U.S.A.,” 400,000 spectators rose and cheered. For that brief moment in time our nation’s greatest heroes were appreciated like athletes or rock stars. This was the most magnificent event I have seen in all my twenty-plus years attending the race. It was an event I will always remember. When I mentioned this to Melvin, he simply stated, “Wasn’t that something?” Seeing the appreciation that these great men were shown told me that perhaps we haven’t lost our way as a society. We do at times still recognize greatness when we are presented with it.
While sitting in Melvin’s living room I mustered enough courage to ask him if I could see his medal. He retreated to the other room and returned with a black box. From it he pulled the medal. He then handed it to as if he was passing a set of car keys. Melvin then exited the room again to retrieve his Bronze Star and Purple Heart. While standing alone looking at the thirteen stars on the blue ribbon, I was struck with a powerful emotion. I suddenly felt unworthy to even hold such a powerful symbol of courage. I realized that I was given the rarest of opportunities to hold history.
I guess its human nature to search for heroes. They come in all shapes and sizes. Their accomplishments vary. They may be a celebrity or a schoolteacher. Some, however, may believe that there are no more heroes in our world. The question is open for debate. Who’s to say what defines or makes a hero? Perhaps we just need someone in our day-to-day lives who inspires us. Of this I am certain, when you're searching for your hero, a good place to start is with Melvin “Bud” Biddle and the other men who wear the five-pointed star with the inscription valor.
Before I parted, I asked Melvin what his children and grandchildren think of him. “What do they think of their Grandfather, the hero?” Melvin shrugged his shoulders and simply replied, “They think I cook a pretty good steak.”
Click here to visit Hendricks County Monthly's Online Magazine
Over the last two years Jerry Cunningham has been a regular visitor and good friend of HomeOfHeroes.com. Many pictures in our MOH Photo pages came from his own collection. Recently Jerry completed a new book titled Heroes of the Heartland. The inspiring stories of the men who have preserved our freedom are shared in this new illustrated historical account featuring Medal of Honor recipient Melvin Biddle whom Jerry interviewed extensively.
Click on the book cover above to visit Jerry's website with information on the book, or email Jerry Cunningham to order an autographed copy.
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