Virginia Tech Magazine
In Retrospect
Summer 2009

Jimmie Monteith: An American hero by Clara B. Cox M.A. '84

Not many Medal of Honor winners in World War II could claim both the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces and the General of the Army as advocates, but Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gen. Omar Bradley recommended VPI (now Virginia Tech) alumnus Jimmie Waters Monteith Jr. for the nation's highest honor.

Monteith's heroism on bloody Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, cost the first lieutenant his life, and he never knew that his actions on D-Day attracted the attention of the two American generals. "I must say that the thing looks like a Medal of Honor to me. This man was good," Eisenhower wrote his chief of staff about Monteith following the Normandy Invasion. Before the generals' intervention, the fallen soldier was slated to receive the Distinguished Service Cross.

Jimmie Monteith's journey from birth to death was far too short--not quite 27 years. He was born in Low Moor, Va., on July 1, 1917, the youngest of three children. When he was nine years old, his family moved to Richmond, Va. After elementary school, he attended Thomas Jefferson High School, where he was known as "Punk" and participated in the Athletic Association, Cafeteria Committee, and Usher Committee; was vice president of the Hi-Y Club; and played a year each of varsity basketball and varsity football. He graduated in 1937 and enrolled in mechanical engineering at VPI, the alma mater of both his father, Jimmie Waters "Jay" Monteith ('07), and only brother, Robert P. "Bob" Monteith ('35).

Jimmie Waters Monteith Jr., 1917-1944
Jimmie Monteith
During both his freshman and sophomore years at VPI, Jimmie was a private in K Battery of the corps of cadets and was a member of the Richmond Sectional Club. In an article written for Corps Review, John A. Coulter II quotes C.W. Watkins, a high school friend of Jimmie and an upperclassman at VPI, who said that Monteith was "an unshakeable Rat with a great sense of humor." Jimmie ended his college days at the end of his sophomore year in June 1939.

After leaving VPI, Monteith returned home and worked as a field representative for the Cabell Coal Company, where his father served as vice president.

The 6-foot-2-inch redhead was drafted into the Army in October 1941 and sent to Camp Croft, S.C., for basic training. While there, he wrote his parents almost weekly, often advising his father, who had health problems, to stop worrying: "You know the brain is the main control, and if we keep it upset and work it overtime, we cannot expect it to do a good job and make our bodies function perfectly."

His letters reflect an up-beat, optimistic, yet realistic young man, who was sometimes given to philosophizing and who loved his family and Army life. The letters also display that sense of humor he was known for as a VPI cadet.

Three months into his training, Monteith, who was promoted to corporal at Camp Croft, submitted the paperwork for officers' training school and learned of his acceptance in March 1942, when he was transferred to Ft. Benning, Ga., for the three-month course. He found the training tough, writing his mother that "it rivals the first year at VPI." He also wrote his father, "These people don't care who you are and/or where you come from, when they don't think you measure up to standards, they put you out. Since I have been here, the boy who married Corbina Wright, movie queen, and Gov. O'Danniel's son of Texas have been put out."

During the training, the area went through six weeks without rain, leaving Fort Benning covered with dust. With his typical good humor, Monteith described its effect on the soldiers: "When we come in, in the afternoon, we look like the late shift from the flour mill and feel worse."

The 15,000-seat theater at Fort McClellan
While training recruits at Fort McClellan, Monteith called the fort's new 15,000-seat theater "one of the most impressive sights that I have ever seen." After his death, the amphitheater was renamed "in lasting memory of Jimmie W. Monteith Jr."

His father's illness remained a concern, as is reflected in a letter he wrote his mother: "No doubt world events have had [quite] a lot to do with his sickness; I have noticed for the last year or so that he has had a more or less hopeless attitude. Just like the sheep who has been cornered by the dogs waiting for something terrible to happen to him. I am afraid that he worries about his children, too, which isn't in the least necessary."

He wondered if he had contributed to his father's illness: " ... I know you all look upon me as the baby," he wrote his mother. "I know my educational failure has always been a big disappointment to [Father] and is one of the things I would change if I had it to do over. But taking all this into consideration, my, shall we say, informal education has been good. I have seen a lot of this thing they call life. And putting it mildly, I have one of the most wonderful families on earth who have done everything humanly possible for me."

His sense of humor often pops to the surface in his letters. Describing a group of military representatives from several different South American countries who visited his military installation, he wrote: "Their uniforms looked like everything from a Greyhound bus driver to a doorman at the Mayflower." And he described one of the Spanish-speaking officers with whom he had attempted a conversation as having "enough utensils on his shoulder to outfit a modern kitchen."

Monteith finished officer training school; was commissioned a second lieutenant on June 20, 1942; and arrived at Fort McClellan, Ala., 10 days later, where he became part of Company B of the 15th Battalion. He soon predicted: "I believe I am going to like it here very much." The area reminded him of his native Low Moor, "although the hills are not as high and of course it is a little hotter." At the fort, he was named a special service officer and then a range officer.

When his father died on Aug. 1, 1942, Jimmie Jr. began advising his mother about insurance and finances. He also expressed concern about his brother joining the military, but Bob received a navy commission.

In November that year, he mentioned that the war news was encouraging but added: "Don't take me wrong, however, for I am sure that we have not faced the worst yet. I only mean that the outcome, victory, is becoming a reality rather than a hope."

Jimmie Waters Monteith Jr., 1917-1944
Jimmie Waters Monteith Jr., 1917-1944
Jimmie Waters Monteith Jr., 1917-1944
Jimmie Waters Monteith Jr., 1917-1944
During his days at Fort McCellan, the base dedicated its new amphitheater, a structure that made quite an impression on the young Virginian. The 15,000-seat theater, he wrote, "was one of the most impressive sights that I have ever seen." Following his heroic actions at Omaha Beach, that same amphitheater was renamed "in lasting memory of Jimmie W. Monteith Jr."

Sometime between Feb. 1 and Feb. 13, 1943, Monteith was transferred into the 30th Division at Camp Blanding, near Jacksonville, Fla. There, his division began its first phase of training, preparatory to being shipped overseas to fight in the war.

The Virginian had some trouble getting used to his new location, which reminded him of a desert, and the weather, at least early on, was not what he expected. "Regardless of what the travel advertisements say about Florida," he wrote home, "it's rather cold when a canteen of water freezes on your hip."

Realizing that his mother was worrying about him, he asked her not to, adding: "You know I may be your baby, but I am really a plenty big boy and I believe I can take care of myself. Although I have never been a roaring success and have had the advantages of wonderful understanding parents and have [led] a full life in every sense of the word and I believe, I hope I am not fooling myself, I know what the scene is."

He added: "I believe firmly that worry is the worst enemy that people have to fight these days. I have seen many strong men in the army nearly drive themselves crazy by worrying over things that they had no control over and of course we all know that worry did not help Daddy a bit."

In March 1943, while on leave in Jacksonville, Fla., he let his mother know that he had volunteered to transfer out of the 30th Division. Changing stations, he said, would be the best thing for him: " ... I know that anywhere that I could go that I would be better off and to say the least like it better." Up to that point, he had not indicated in his letters that he was unhappy with his division, perhaps to keep his mother's worries to a minimum. "The thought of you worrying frightens me more than the [Japanese] or Germans ever could," he told her.

By April 2, 1943, the second lieutenant still didn't know anything about his transfer, but a week later, he arrived at a point of debarkation in the Northeast. His last letter to his mother and sister, Nancy, before shipping out is postmarked New Brunswick, N.J. In it, he told them: "I do not know if either of you understand this but I would be disappointed if I did not get to go." He was not allowed to tell them where he was headed.

By April 30, Monteith was at sea, and by May 3, 1943, he had landed in Arzew, Algeria. He later wrote that he had joined, at his request, the 1st Infantry Division, known as the "Big Red One," in Tunisia. He was part of Company L of the division's 16th Infantry. On May 9, soon after his arrival, the commander of the German Afrika Korps surrendered, ending the Big Red One's North African operations. But Monteith still "traveled over the major portion of N. Africa and visited all of her famous cites," he later wrote.

The division moved on to Sicily, storming ashore on July 10, 1943, at Gela and quickly overpowering Italian defenses before facing the Herman Goering Tank Division and driving them back. Monteith, who received a field promotion to first lieutenant on Sept. 3, 1943, during the Sicily campaign, told his family that he was glad to say "that I didn't get a scratch and am still as big and fat as ever." He reported in November that he was a mess officer. The first lieutenant never described any fighting in his letters home, but he did tell his mother and sister: "I saw the end in Africa and in Sicily...."

On Dec. 1, 1943, he reported that he was in England, and later that month, he told his mother that his location was "good news for me for I know you won't worry about me now." What he didn't tell her--if he knew it himself--was that the 1st Division had gone to England to prepare for the Normandy invasion.

Nonetheless, he had some good times on the big island. He went to London more than once on leave, located and visited a cousin who lived in England, shared a dog--a Scottie--given to his company by an Englishwoman, roamed the fields, watched birds build their nests, and raised money to buy Christmas presents for children in an English village. On one occasion, he described being chased out of a field by a cow.

On New Year's Day 1944, he reflected: "Back in the early 1930s I thought that when 1944 rolled around I would be an old man but here it is and I am still a boy. In fact I am such a boy that I can think of nothing better than being at home with my Mother.... Mother, I don't like to make any predictions for the new year but I am sure it will be a happier one for us than the last. I believe that we have gotten over the rough road and that there is smooth sailing and blue skies ahead."

He seemed to be satisfied with his role in the war: "... I would not change if I were given the chance--even to have some easy job in the rear area. Of course I can't say that should I ever be lucky enough to have a son that I would want him to go through something like this. But if events forced him I would want him to prove himself.... As for the 1st Division, every time I look at the shoulder insignia (the red one) I get a thrill--there is no better fighting unit in the world. When the Germans were confident of victory on several occasions and all circumstances were against the 1st, the men rose to the occasion and hurled them back in great confusion and disorder.... There is a great feeling of satisfaction that one gets within oneself. I would not change."

For the second time in his letters home, Monteith mentioned Virginia Tech--this time on March 20, 1944, in reference to another officer: "Roscoe and I live together in the same room so he is my 'Ole Lady' in VPI terms...."

The Big Red One boarded ships near Dorchester, Dorset, England, June 1-4, 1944, and sailed the evening of June 5 to invade France the following day. As they approached the coast of Normandy, they ran into problems. According to historical records of the 16th Infantry: "Heavy seas, numerous underwater obstacles, and intense enemy fire destroyed many craft and caused high casualties even before the assault battalions reached shore. Most supporting weapons, including DD tanks, were swamped."

Monteith landed on Omaha Beach in the first wave of attack. A War Department news release, quoting Sgt. Aaron B. Jones, a squad leader in Monteith's platoon, described what he did that day:

When we hit the beach the air was thick with machinegun, rifle, and shell fire. Lt. Monteith brought his men together and faced the first obstacle, layers of heavy barbed wire. After selecting a place where it could be blown open, he led men with a Bangalore torpedo in blasting the wire open.

Beyond this were two mine fields and he led the way through these. The field was traversed by machinegun fire from the two enemy emplacements and from a pillbox, and when the men took cover, he stood studying the situation and then ran back to the beach.

On the beach were two tanks, buttoned up and blind because of heavy machinegun fire that was directed on them. He walked through all that fire to bang on the sides of the tanks and instruct the men inside to follow him. Then, walking in front he led the tanks to the pillbox, where they put it out of action. He then led his men against two machinegun positions and knocked them out and then set up a defensive position to hold until more units could be brought from the beach.

In that sector the enemy was not fighting from fixed positions but was moving around in the hedgerows and setting up automatic weapons. In this manner a fairly large group started an attack on the position and set up machineguns on the flanks and rear. The Germans yelled to us to surrender because we were surrounded. Lt. Monteith did not answer but moved toward the sound of voices and launched a rifle grenade at them from 20 yards, knocking out the machinegun position.

Even with a larger force the Germans couldn't break through our positions, so they set up two machineguns and started spraying the hedgerow. Lt. Monteith got a squad of riflemen to open up on the machinegun on the right flank. Under cover of the fire he sneaked up on the gun and threw hand grenades, which knocked out the position.

He then came back and crossed a 200-yard stretch of open field under fire to launch rifle grenades at the other machinegun position. He either killed the crew or forced them to abandon the weapon. Back on the other flank enemy riflemen opened up on us again, and Lt. Monteith started across the open field to help us fight them off but was killed by the fire of a light machinegun that had been brought to our rear.

According to the article "Agony at Omaha Beach" by Pete Lamb, Monteith told his sergeant early in the battle: "Man--one thing is for sure--this ain't our day."

Lamb called the Virginian's actions on D-Day "the most important--for he single-handedly turned defeat into victory on that bullet-swept, corpse-strewn beachhead called Omaha." Of the four soldiers who received the Medal of Honor in the Normandy Invasion, he wrote, "the man who came closest to turning the trick, performing the miracle ... was Jimmie Monteith, a tall, boyish Virginian, who came out of the hill country to write his name in glory across the pages reserved for the greatest heroes of U.S. military history."

Mrs. Monteith received a telegram on June 6 notifying her that her son had been killed in action. But his brother, Bob, who was in the Navy, did not learn of his death until July 20, and he wrote his mother immediately:

This will be the hardest letter I'll ever write for there just aren't words that will tell you how I feel or the things that are in my heart tonight. I've just talked with Francis [his wife] and found that Jimmie has been killed--I can't believe it, Mother--it just couldn't be and yet is something I have been so afraid would happen--I've been worried to death about him since the invasion first started--he's hardly been off my mind for a minute and I've prayed steadily for his safety.... I do wish there were some real words of comfort--something that I could say that would make it a little easier for you for I think I know how you're feeling now; I've lost only a brother who was one of the finest and dearest people in the world, while you've lost a son who you've helped to grow into such a grand person--my heart nearly breaks for you and Nancy, and I'd give all I own if I could be there to help shore some of this burden.

Monteith was buried, along with 9,386 of his comrades, in the temporary American St. Laurent Cemetery, now the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel.

In September 1944, the 16th Infantry Regiment was cited for "extraordinary heroism and outstanding performance of duty in action in the initial assault on the northern coast of Normandy, France."

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel.
Monteith was buried, along with 9,386 of his comrades, in the temporary American St. Laurent Cemetery, now the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel.

Six months later, Mrs. Monteith received word from the War Department that the president had directed the awarding, posthumously, of the Medal of Honor to her son "for conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty near Colleville sur Mer, France, on 6 June 1944." When Bob heard about the high honor, he wrote his mother that he wished he could attend the presentation and added: "... this country owed Jimmie a debt and I'm grateful that it has been repaid--the award of the medal in no means makes up for our loss but it eases it a great deal to have Jimmie's sacrifices so highly honored...."

Mrs. Monteith received her son's Medal of Honor from Brig. Gen. Rupert E. Starr during a simple ceremony in her home in Richmond on March 19, 1945, and placed the medal around a photo of Jimmie that she kept on her mantel.

The citation for the medal recounts his heroic actions that day, ending: "The courage, gallantry, and intrepid leadership displayed by 1st Lt. Monteith is worthy of emulation."

In the wake of the Techman's heroic death, a number of facilities and organizations were christened in his memory and in honor of his sacrifice. In addition to the Ft. McClellan amphitheater, other memorials include the Richmond Chapter of the American Veterans of World War II; an army camp near Gnjilane, Kosovo; a court at Ft. Benning; an army reserve center at McGuire Veterans Administration Hospital, and the barracks housing the 16th Infantry Regiment headquarters in Furth, Germany. Virginia Tech remembers its fallen hero via the Jimmie W. Monteith Jr. Residence Hall, and the Richmond Chapter of the Alumni Association presents an award in his honor to the "senior outstanding in scholastic, military, athletic, and organization activities."

Monteith once wrote that "people forget the soldiers who fight their battles for them in a matter of hours." But these memorials, located in three countries, attest to the fact that people have not forgotten him--or his heroic actions in the battle for freedom.

Note: Today, the Medal of Honor won at such a high cost by Jimmie Monteith can be seen in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets Museum in Rasche Hall, while the Special Collections Department of University Libraries preserves his letters for posterity. Also, on June 6, 2009, the nation recognized the 65th anniversary of D-Day and the contributions of the soldiers who fought in the Normandy Invasion.

CLARA B. COX is director of University Publications.

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