John Hawk, drafted right out of high school in 1943, was a private first class when he landed at Normandy in a C-47 transport plane a few weeks after the Allied invasion. As his infantry company fought its way to the town of Chambois, he received what his buddies called a "bang promotion" when he was chosen to replace his wounded sergeant.
Americans advancing from the south and English troops from the north had encircled German troops in what became known as the Falaise Pocket. The Germans were trying desperately to fight their way out toward the east to get their armor and other heavy equipment back to defend their homeland. At dawn on August 20, 1944, the machine-gun squad Hawk commanded was dug in on the edge of an apple orchard when the enemy counterattack began. With the smell of dead farm animals heavy in the air, Hawk saw a pair of German Tiger tanks lumber into his sector, followed by enemy infantry. His badly outnumbered gunners repelled the soldiers but couldn't effectively oppose the tanks. German explosive rounds took out one of Hawk's guns, and a tank ran over another one. Hawk took cover behind an apple tree, but a German machine gun shell penetrated it and hit him in the right thigh.
He limped to a drainage ditch, where he found an American soldier with a bazooka but with no one to load it for him. The two men, working together, began firing at the German tanks, stalking them through the orchard until they withdrew. Hawk then reorganized his scattered machine gunners into one squad and directed them to assemble one workable weapon from the parts of two damaged machine guns.
Later in the day, Hawk saw more Tiger tanks massing for another attempted breakout. Two American tank destroyers on the other side of the orchard were ready to open fire, but they couldn't see the tanks because of the tree cover. Hawk called in a description of their position, then moved to an exposed position facing the Germans and, using arm signals, directed the American tank destroyers against the unseen German tanks. Next he ran back to the tank destroyers and helped them correct the range, then returned to the hill so the Americans could again use him to aim their guns. As a result, two enemy tanks were destroyed, and the rest were driven off. Eventually, five thousand Germans surrendered because the battle in the apple orchard had kept part of the Falaise Pocket closed.
Hawk was treated for his leg wound, but he was unwilling to become separated from his unit and refused to be hospitalized. He made it into Germany just before the Battle of the Bulge, where he was wounded again.
Hawk was back home in Washington State when he learned that he would receive the Medal of Honor. Not wanting to travel to Washington, D.C., he called a childhood friend, U.S. Senator Warren Magnusen, for help. When Magnusen learned that President Truman was planning to attend an international conference in San Francisco, he asked Truman to come to the state capitol in Olympia. After putting the Medal around Hawk's neck in Olympia on June 21, 1945, the President turned his attention to Hawk's father, whom he had discovered was an old World War I artilleryman like himself.