At 19, John “Bud” Hawk had been in the Army a little more than a year when German tanks started blasting away at his machine-gun unit in a Normandy apple orchard.
The Germans, hemmed in by Allied forces to the north and the south, were desperate to fight their way east, out of what was called the Falaise Pocket. Hawk’s unit, while dramatically outnumbered, was an obstacle.
Taking cover behind a tree, Hawk felt a burning pain in his right thigh when a German shell penetrated the trunk.
“French apple trees aren’t worth a darn,” he told CNN in 1994.
A little later that day – Aug. 20, 1944 – the wounded Hawk scrambled through enemy fire to higher ground so he could guide newly arrived, heavy-duty American tank destroyers to their targets. When that didn’t work, he ran to the destroyers and told their crews where to aim, exposing himself to another round of deadly bursts. Then he made it back to the rise and did it all over again.
He also rallied his scattered troops during a lull in battle and had them rig up a working machine gun from the parts of two that had been destroyed.
His actions earned the young sergeant the Medal of Honor, the nation’s top military award for valor in battle. After decades of Greatest Generation modesty about his wartime achievement, Hawk, a retired elementary school teacher and principal, died Nov. 4 at his home in Bremerton. He was 89.
His death was caused by complications from a stroke, his daughter Marilyn Harrelson said Sunday.
Hawk was one of 467 troops who received the Medal of Honor for service in World War II. Eight are still alive.
While he spoke frequently about military service to civic and school groups, he didn’t often go into the details of his unit’s engagement outside the town of Chambois.
“Most of the time he referred them to his citation,” his daughter said. “He told them, ‘You can read about it.’ ” In 2009, he told the Seattle Times that heroics were the furthest thing from his mind when he was in the Army.
“You’re doing the job, doing the best job you can,” he said, “and the accomplishment is to get the damned thing over with.”
Born in San Francisco on May 30, 1924, John Druse Hawk grew up on Bainbridge Island, Wash., and signed on with the Army two weeks after graduating from high school in 1943.
Weeks after the Normandy invasion, he landed in France on a troop transport plane and soon was dug in with other troops at the Chambois apple orchard.
After he was wounded, he limped to a drainage ditch and helped a soldier with a bazooka stalk enemy tanks. Over hours of on-and-off fighting, German tanks and troops were again advancing while two newly arrived, heavy-duty U.S. tank destroyers fired away.
“Their shots were ineffective because of the terrain until Sgt. Hawk, despite his wound, boldly climbed to an exposed position on a knoll, where unmoved by fusillades from the enemy,” he tried to wave the destroyers to better positions, according to Hawk’s Medal of Honor citation.
Hawk shouted, but the din of battle drowned him out. His only choice, he later said, was to deliver instructions to the destroyers by running through heavy enemy fire.
He repeated the risky process several times, until two German tanks were destroyed and a third retreated. Ultimately, the Falaise Pocket was sewn shut and 500 German troops surrendered, thanks in large part to Hawk’s “fearless initiative and heroic conduct,” his citation said.
In later years, Hawk said he was hardly fearless in battle.
“If you’re not afraid, you’re nuts or you want to die,” he told an interviewer. “Courage is, I think, how you handle fear.”
Hawk refused hospitalization for his leg wound so he could stay with his unit, according to “Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty,” a 2003 book by Peter Collier.
He went on to fight at the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded again.
On June 24, 1945, President Harry Truman draped the Medal of Honor around Hawk’s neck on the steps of Washington’s Capitol in Olympia.
Returning to civilian life, he attended Olympic Junior College and earned a biology degree from the University of Washington. He was an educator in Kitsap County for 31 years, retiring in 1983.
For years, he was grand marshal of Bremerton’s Armed Forces Day parade. In Rolling Bay, his Bainbridge Island hometown, officials in 2010 put his name on the post office, which he jokingly recalled as “the center of the known world” when he was growing up.