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The quiet hero from Camden: Francis X. McGraw

In November 2019, Private First Class Francis X. McGraw’s Medal of Honor will go on display in our Price of Freedom exhibition. This is his story. 

A tinted photograph of a man.
Portrait of Private First Class Francis X. McGraw.

Two months after Pearl Harbor, 24-year-old Francis Xavier McGraw enlisted in the army. McGraw was born in Camden, New Jersey, graduated from Camden Catholic High School, and worked as a machinist’s helper in Camden’s Campbell Soup factory. But in 1942, McGraw left Camden and spent the next two years traveling the world, taking part in some of World War II’s most notorious and dramatic battles, before making the ultimate sacrifice almost 4,000 miles from home. 

A man in uniform on a lawn.
Private McGraw on leave in Camden, New Jersey, prior to shipping overseas in late 1942 with the 1st Platoon, Company H, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, nicknamed “The Big Red One.” Courtesy of Steve McGraw.

After training, McGraw shipped out to North Africa, where he fought the German Afrika Korps until Allied victory in early May. Next, he landed at Gela, Sicily, where he helped to capture the island in mid-August. Moving northward, McGraw relocated to the United Kingdom to prepare to invade France.

McGraw joined troops fighting to break through German defenses and cross the Rhine in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest. Beginning in mid-September with the capture of a German town at the edge of the forest—Schevenhütte—and stretching into December, this was the longest single battle in American history. And from the start, little went according to plan. Rather than maneuver around the forest, American leadership decided to attack through it, which meant tanks could not maneuver freely and the forest canopy kept aircraft from targeting accurately. Americans were forced to fight mostly man-to-man with Germans and ultimately incurred over 33,000 casualties, including 9,000 non-combat losses. 

Men in a forest.
The Hürtgen Forest made fighting a slow, bloody affair. Courtesy of National Archives.

The conditions were brutal and unforgiving. Rain and snow produced a misty fog, and the thick evergreen canopy ensured a darkened, disorienting environment. Shells detonated in the upper branches, showering men huddled in muddy foxholes below with steel and wood splinters. The Germans fortified the woods with concealed blockhouses and minefields. Enemy artillery barrages ravaged the Americans on the forest floor.

On November 19, McGraw was manning a heavy machine gun in a foxhole. In the prior four days, McGraw’s regiment had advanced less than a mile. Now, under steady rain and sleet, the Germans launched a counterattack to seize the meager gains, starting with an hour-long heavy barrage of enemy artillery. 

McGraw remained at his gun, firing on advancing German infantry. Their assault faltering, the Germans took cover, brought up a machine gun, and aimed at McGraw. Seeking a better vantage point, McGraw stood up in his foxhole, exposing himself to enemy fire, positioned his machine gun, and proceeded to silence the enemy gun.

The Germans next brought up antitank rockets called Panzerfausts. A blast hit near McGraw, knocking his machine gun aside. Retrieving the weapon, McGraw acquired his targets and returned fire. A second machine gun targeted him, and McGraw stood up again, silencing the enemy weapon.

Ammunition began to run low. 

“The fire was so intense that the ammunition bearers were unable to cover the short distance to the ammunition dump where supplies were stored in a deep trench,” First Sergeant Joseph Baruno remembered. “I saw Private McGraw make three trips to pile up supplies next to his gun. He was hit on the last trip.” 

Baruno told McGraw to stop fighting and await medical treatment, but McGraw retorted that it could wait until “after the enemy stopped trying to get through.”

One German soldier closed in, but McGraw shot him with his pistol and returned to firing on the advancing Germans.

Additional Panzerfaust rounds landed near him, showering both McGraw and his machine gun with mud. He calmly cleaned and reassembled his weapon before returning fire until he ran out of ammunition.

The German forces to his front wavered and began to retreat in the face of McGraw’s determined stand. He picked up a carbine and began firing at the withdrawing enemy infantry. One German soldier fell dead, and McGraw wounded another. A third soldier engaged McGraw in a gun battle and mortally wounded him.
 

A telegram.
Telegram announcing McGraw’s death, as received by his parents, December 7, 1944. Courtesy of Steve McGraw.

One of McGraw’s trenchmates, First Lieutenant Paul C. Heath, wrote to McGraw’s mother that her son “died as a soldier, in the manner he would wish; fighting on the field of battle against the enemies of our country. . . . His presence in the line was always an inspiration to his comrades and they miss him deeply.” 

A medal on a chain.
McGraw’s Medal of Honor. 

For his extraordinary heroism, McGraw received the Medal of Honor posthumously. At the time of his death, McGraw held the rank of Private First Class and had received an Army Good Conduct Medal. McGraw had refused promotion because he never wanted to be in a position to order any man to his death. This was true to the man his family remembered growing up in Camden. His family recalled he was mild mannered but quick to stand up to bullies and threats to his friends and family. To his last breath, he remained true to form.

A medal with the engraving "PFC. Francis X McGraw Inf. U.S. Army. Schevenhutte, Germany. 19 November 1944.
The reverse side of McGraw’s Medal of Honor shows this inscription. 

Frank Blazich Jr. is a curator in the Division of Political and Military History.