War is hell, I know. But I have developed this fascination with heroism during a war that makes me wonder: “What does it take for a man to bite his own nerves and fears, pick up his gun, and dive into combat in the name of saving a fellow soldier?” Isn’t human nature to self-preserve? Or does that same nature fuel and drive a man to do these valiant acts?
To find answers, I turned to the list of brave men who received the Medal of Honor, the highest honorable award a man could receive for valiant heroism and sacrifice—where I stumbled upon World War II veteran Vito Bertoldo.
By all means, all these valor awardees, especially those who sacrificed themselves to save others, nonetheless showed gallantry. But this man, boy, he’s among up the God-tier who took it to the next LEVEL!
If you’ve seen his documentary on Netflix or read past exclusive articles about him, I’m sure you already know about Bertoldo’s staggering rise to prominence. A walking paradox, he joined the U.S. Army under the 4-F classification due to his poor eyesight. Yet, he managed to shoot down almost perfectly all those aggressors on that fateful night when he was left to defend two commanding posts alone.
Born and raised in Decatur, Illinois, in the early winter of 1916, Bertoldo worked as a coal miner and truck driver before he enlisted in the Army in 1942. The fact that he was exempted from the World War II draft because of his weak eyesight—this man did not grab that free ticket. He managed to talk his way into limited service as a U.S. military policeman. But Bertoldo wanted to do more, and he did. He received a special seal of approval that would allow him to be transferred to an infantry unit deployed in France along the 42nd Infantry Division… as a cook.
Now a Private First Class, Bertoldo was voluntold to stand guard for the 1st Battalion, 242nd Infantry Regiment on January 9, 1945—a date that forever changed his life and engraved in American military history.
For the next two days, two-frickin’ days, Bertoldo defended a vital command post near Hatten, France, alone against infantry of German soldiers after his fellow stand guards were taken down when the invaders tricked them from surrendering. And did I mention that the offensive brought tanks?! Yes, with an S. Because Bertoldo’s defense was so strong, it felt like a hundred men were there with him.
Germans were on the verge of losing, and as part of its last-ditch effort to turntables, they resorted to attacking and destroying the U.S. 7th Army, where most of its supplies were reaching their last stretch after the exhausting Battle of the Bulge. But little did they know, a one-person stronghold was waiting for them at the entrance.
Moving his position onto the streets, where he could see the full view of any advancing adversaries with a machine gun, Bertoldo stealthily awaited the attackers like a hungry predator, patiently and actively waiting for his prey. He’d be holding that position for 12 hours—no sleep, no eat.
Bertoldo eventually moved back inside the command post when more armored personnel carriers and tanks rolled onto the streets. He set up his gun on a table and shot an entire group of German infantry one by one amid the presence of an “88-mm fire from tanks only 75 yards away.” What an absolute, mad lad! Even after being blown across the room, Bertoldo stood up, shrugged some dust off, and picked his goddamn gun again. This man’s patience, endurance, stealth, and marksmanship are beyond me. He even lost his eyeglasses at some point and got a concussion, but he remained calm and steadfast. He kept guarding that post at his own will and without being told until his fellow soldiers had moved to safety.
In a newspaper published by the Decatur Herald, Bertoldo shared: “I must have been crazy, but just the same, I guess I did a great deal of damage by myself. For the first 50 hours, I remember everything I did, but after that, I was so damn tired that I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. I didn’t want to be left behind, and it was a matter of kill or be killed.”
He also said in that interview that seeing his fellow soldiers being shot down by the Germans “like dogs,” which he deduced might have urged him to “fight so strong.”
“There was a job to be done, and I did all I could to keep them from running our country. We are free from them, that is all that counts,” Bertoldo concluded.
At the end of that long-lasting standoff, promoted Master Sargeant Bertoldo killed at least 40 hostile soldiers for more than 48 hours without rest or relief.
Below is the official citation during his Medal of honor awarding ceremony in 1945:
“He fought with extreme gallantry while guarding two command posts against the assault of powerful infantry and armored forces which had overrun the battalion’s main line of resistance. On the close approach of enemy soldiers, he left the protection of the building he defended and set up his gun in the street, there to remain for almost 12 hours driving back attacks while in full view of his adversaries and completely exposed to 88-mm, machine-gun, and small-arms fire. He moved back inside the command post, strapped his machine gun to a table, and covered the main approach to the building by firing through a window, remaining steadfast even in the face of 88-mm fire from tanks only 75 yards away. One shell blasted him across the room, but he returned to his weapon. When two enemy personnel carriers led by a tank moved toward his position, he calmly waited for the troops to dismount and then, with the tank firing directly at him, leaned out of the window and mowed down the entire group of more than 20 Germans. Some time later, removal of the command post to another building was ordered. MSgt. Bertoldo voluntarily remained behind, covering the withdrawal of his comrades and maintaining his stand all night. In the morning he carried his machine gun to an adjacent building used as the command post of another battalion and began a day-long defense of that position. He broke up a heavy attack, launched by a self-propelled 88-mm gun covered by a tank and about 15 infantrymen. Soon afterward another 88-mm weapon moved up to within a few feet of his position, and, placing the muzzle of its gun almost inside the building, fired into the room, knocking him down and seriously wounding others. An American bazooka team set the German weapon afire, and MSgt. Bertoldo went back to his machine gun dazed as he was and killed several of the hostile troops as they attempted to withdraw. It was decided to evacuate the command post under the cover of darkness, but before the plan could be put into operation the enemy began an intensive assault supported by fire from their tanks and heavy guns. Disregarding the devastating barrage, he remained at his post and hurled white phosphorous grenades into the advancing enemy troops until they broke and retreated. A tank less than 50 yards away fired at his stronghold, destroyed the machine gun, and blew him across the room again, but he once more returned to the bitter fight and, with a rifle, singlehandedly covered the withdrawal of his fellow soldiers when the post was finally abandoned. With inspiring bravery and intrepidity MSgt. Bertoldo withstood the attack of vastly superior forces for more than 48 hours without rest or relief, time after time escaping death only by the slightest margin while killing at least 40 hostile soldiers and wounding many more during his grim battle against the enemy hordes.”
Aside from this, Bertoldo also received the following recognitions: Combat Infantryman Badge, Bronze Star Medal with oak leaf cluster, Purple Heart, and French Croix de Guerre.
While Bertoldo survived all those blasts and bullets, he will apparently lose his battle with cancer in 1966. Nevertheless, his legacy will forever live on not just in history but in his family lineage as well as the Most Badass Medal of Honor Recipient of all time.