Rare find in Tacoma closet spreads legacy of Medal of Honor vet
May 27, 2019, 7:25 AM | Updated: May 28, 2019, 11:26 am
The 19-year-olds farmboys-turned-soldiers traveled from the barns of then-rural Bainbridge Island to the similar pastures and orchards of Northern France.
But the French countryside, for all its rural beauty, soon became marred by the violence of battle.
In the weeks after the invasion of Normandy — 75 years ago on June 6 — the Allies began working their way east across France toward Germany, freeing village after village from Nazi invasion.
Fresh out of Bainbridge Island High School, John D. Hawk was thrown into the middle of the World War II action as a machine gunner.
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“He and his friends enlisted right after high school graduation — poor farmboys,” said Hawk’s daughter, Federal Way resident Marilyn Harrelson. “Of course, they ended up in the infantry on the ground because they didn’t have a lot of education or whatever else, but they certainly had the smarts to deal with what they faced.”
When Hawk’s sergeant died, he became what was known as a “bump sergeant” — he was given a field promotion to fill the role.
It was a difficult time to be in charge of a machine gun squad. The Allies had the Germans mostly surrounded in what was known as the Falaise Pocket and were closing in from the north, west, and south, with a gap in the east. The Germans were attempting to use this eastern gap to break through the pocket.
It was in this gap that Hawk and his men were positioned, near the town of Chambois.
“The Falaise Pocket was basically an apple orchard,” Harrelson said. “The infantry, of course, was on the ground. They did have some tanks and things with them, but the Germans were bringing their big tiger tanks in. And dad and his group got to a point where their equipment couldn’t move very well through those apple orchards. As the Germans continued to approach, they were going to be surrounded.”
Hawk noticed a building with hundreds of Germans hiding inside — Harrelson said it was likely one of the many bombed-out, abandoned buildings dotting the Norman countryside. He came up with a plan to ambush the building and force the Germans out.
Although some of their weapons had been destroyed, Hawk’s farmboy resourcefulness enabled him to engineer new weapons out of what was available.
They were barely able to see the building through the smoke, but Hawk “ran back and forth shouting directions,” even after he was shot in the leg.
“He and some others took disabled equipment, and took the parts, and made a working piece,” Harrelson said. “Dad ran back and forth shouting directions so that eventually they were able to knock off the German tanks and save several thousand lives.”
The wounded Hawk used the trees of the orchard to his advantage.
“While other people had planes and ships and other things around them, dad said he usually spent his time trying to find a tree to hide behind,” she said.
Eventually, the Germans surrendered, and were prevented from making a break in the Falaise Pocket. The pocket officially sealed on Aug. 21.
According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, Hawk did not go to a hospital after being wounded because he did not want to be parted from his men. Eventually, he made it with them into Germany, where he was wounded again.
Harrelson, a history teacher, heard and retold her father’s stories countless times over the years, but it was one moment after his 2013 death that struck her in particular. Going through his possessions, she came across a series of photos he had requested from the Army of the orchard after the battle.
“It just really was in my mind about a 19-year-old machine gunner out there doing this — at the time, my son was 19,” she said. “It really was an emotional journey thinking of a mother sending her son off to a war like this, and being very glad that dad came back home.”
Receiving the military’s highest honor
Harrelson said that her father’s actions that day saved thousands of Allied lives.
However, Hawk did not see his actions as particularly heroic — rather, he was simply doing what needed to be done to win the war. He lived by the motto, “I came when I was called, I did the best I could.”
Harrelson said that her dad did not even know he was being considered for the military’s highest honor for months after he came back.
On June 21, 1945, President Harry Truman presented Hawk with the Congressional Medal of Honor in Olympia to recognize his service to his country. The Medal of Honor is customarily given to recipients by the president, though Hawk broke tradition by receiving it in his home state, rather than in the nation’s capital.
It was the first, but not the last time that Hawk met a president; he made the acquaintance of President John F. Kennedy at a White House reception for Medal of Honor recipients.
Hawk also was awarded the French Legion of Honor, four Purple Hearts, and numerous other military awards.
But ever humble, Hawk did not brag about his wartime achievements. He did not like it when people referred to him as “winning” the Medal of Honor, instead correcting them to say that he “received” it.
“His role was to represent the medal, and he did for most of his life,” Harrelson said.
A chance find
Spanaway resident Charles Shay, Jr. never expected to find anything valuable in the nooks and crannies of his sister’s Tacoma house — least of all, a military challenge coin.
While helping his sister to renovate her Tacoma home before selling it, he went into an upstairs walk-in closet to replace the ceiling lightbulb. It was while he was standing atop a ladder when he noticed something sitting on the top shelf. At about seven feet high, it was not a shelf that was normally used.
“I looked over on the shelf, I saw a couple of pieces of plastic that were sitting on the shelf there, the one above my head,” Shay said. “I tried to brush them off and they wouldn’t move, so I just went and picked them up. They felt heavy.”
The light in the closet was too dim to examine them properly. Without thinking too much about it, he put the mysterious items in his pocket until the job was finished.
When he got back outside, he reached into his pocket — and pulled out two challenge coins with the names of local Medal of Honor recipients.
Shay did not know at first what the coins were, but he recognized the significance of a Medal of Honor recipient, as he comes from a strong military background. His grandfather served in the Naval Construction Battalions during World War II, and lost his life to injuries he sustained in the service. Shay also has one brother-in-law who spent two decades in the Army, and another brother-in-law who spent the same amount of time in the Navy.
“My sister is a little bit shorter than me, so there is no way she would have ever seen it on the top shelf,” he said. “So how it ended up there and how long it was sitting there and who left it there, who knows?”
Shay contacted the Dori Monson Show, who got in touch with Marilyn Harrelson and her brother Mark Hawk. During an in-studio meeting, Shay handed the coin back to its rightful owners.
“That’s a piece of history that the family should be able to hold in their hand,” he said.
Shay may never know the answer to the mystery of how the coin ended up in his sister’s house, but he now knows that the coin ended up in its rightful place.
The sister and brother were grateful to receive a piece of their late father’s legacy. Harrelson explained that the coin commemorates his military honors.
“He would judiciously give these out to people at various gatherings … His favorite place to pass them out was when he did school presentations,” she said.
The classroom held a special place in Hawk’s heart. John D. “Bud” Hawk Elementary School at Jackson Park in Bremerton was named in his honor.
In fact, every year, the students who win the John D. Hawk award receive challenge coins to continue his legacy.
For it was neither the prestigious military awards nor the mid-battle heroism that stood out for Hawk as his greatest achievement.
When he came back to America, Hawk studied at the University of Washington and became a teacher. He worked in the Central Kitsap School District for three decades, as both an educator and principal.
His daughter followed in her father’s footsteps and became a history teacher.
“Dad was a lifelong educator, and that’s the thing he always said he was most proud of,” she said.