Robert Maxwell was the "wire man" to his army buddies—a lineman in charge of stringing up the field phone connections for his battalion's communications. When he landed in North Africa with the 7th Infantry as a technician fifth grade, he carried an M-1 rifle. But along with his wire and tools, the load was so heavy that he was reclassified as a noncombatant, which allowed him to carry only a .45-caliber pistol.
After the North African campaign, Maxwell's division invaded Sicily in July 1943, then raced north to Palermo and east to Messina, helping to capture the island in thirty-eight days. The division next moved to the newly established Salerno beachhead and fought its way north through the mountains near Montecassino. In early January 1944, a few days after it landed on the beaches of Anzio, Maxwell was wounded. Hospitalized in Naples for several months, he rejoined his outfit before the invasion of southern France that summer.
On September 7, Maxwell's battalion was part of the assault on the town of Besançon. His job was to string communications wire to connect the front lines with the American command post, which was set up in a shell-pocked farmhouse surrounded by a four-foot stone wall. Along the top of this wall was a mesh-wire fence. Shortly after midnight, as Maxwell was standing guard in the courtyard of the house, a German platoon that had infiltrated the American battalion's forward companies opened fire with machine guns and 20 mm antiaircraft weapons. In the dark, he could see the advancing Germans as they were briefly illuminated by gunfire and hear the twang of their grenades bouncing off the mesh wire above the wall. They came within ten yards of the command post, trying to take out the officers inside. Maxwell fought them off with his .45, as three other soldiers, also armed only with pistols, joined him.
After several minutes of chaos, an enemy grenade cleared the wire. Maxwell heard it hit in the courtyard a few feet away from the door of the command post. Fearing that it would injure the officers, he moved to grab it and toss it back at the enemy. But he realized there wasn't time, so he smothered it with his body, then lost consciousness.
When he came to, he was alone. He had large shrapnel wounds in his head and arms, and part of his right foot was blown away. His platoon leader appeared, picked Maxwell up, and helped him walk out the back door of the farmhouse. Just as they reached the road, another German grenade hit behind them, knocking them both down.