If you listen to Francis Currey describe his life, he'll tell you he's an average man. Never mind that he's been featured on a U.S. postage stamp and was a model for one of the most famous dolls in history — G.I. Joe.
Despite his protests, Currey is a genuine hero.
Awarded three Purple Hearts, he is also New York State's only living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, but he views those medals and the ensuing accolades with modesty.
"I got it, that's all," Currey once said of his Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor that he received in 1945.
"I don't make a big issue out of it," he added.
Maybe not, but the five men Currey saved on Dec. 21, 1944, thought differently.
Currey was a 19-year-old Army sergeant when his platoon of 30 men was assigned to defend Malmedy, a small town in Belgium. His team had very few weapons, and most were small arms that had little effect on the German tanks. After prolonged fighting, his group was forced to withdraw to a nearby factory.
Currey joined the Army just one week after graduating high school in New York, where he was raised by a foster family. (Photo by U.S. Army)
There, Currey found a bazooka and crossed the street to secure rockets, meanwhile enduring intense fire from enemy tanks and hostile infantrymen who had taken up a position at a house a short distance away. In the face of small arms, machine gun, and artillery fire, he knocked out a tank with one shot. Moving to another position, he observed three Germans in the doorway of an enemy-held house. He killed or wounded all of them with his automatic rifle.
Currey emerged from cover and advanced alone to within 50 yards of the house, intent on wrecking it with rockets from his bazooka. Covered by friendly fire, he stood erect and fired a shot which knocked down half of one wall. While in this forward position, he observed five Americans who had been pinned down for hours by fire from the house and three tanks.
Realizing that they could not escape until the enemy tank and infantry guns had been silenced, Currey crossed the street to a vehicle, where he procured an armful of antitank grenades. These he launched while under heavy enemy fire, driving the tankmen from the vehicles into the house. He then climbed onto a half-track truck in full view of the Germans and fired a machine gun at the house.
Once again changing his position, he manned another machine gun whose crew had been killed; under his covering fire, the five soldiers were able to retire to safety.
Medal of Honor.
Deprived of tanks and with heavy infantry casualties, the Germans were forced to withdraw.
Through his extensive knowledge of weapons and by his heroic and repeated braving of murderous enemy fire, Currey was greatly responsible for inflicting heavy losses in men and material on the enemy, for rescuing his comrades — two of whom were wounded — and for stemming an attack which threatened his unit's position.
Currey's actions are credited with shortening the war by at least six weeks and saving countless American lives, because if the Germans had broken through that day, they would have gained a huge advantage.
For his bravery, Currey was awarded the Medal of Honor in a ceremony, Aug. 17, 1945, in Reims, France, with just over two weeks left before the end of the war. At the time, Currey was recovering from a wound that earned him his third Purple Heart — a gunshot he sustained while disarming a German soldier in Bavaria.
When the war in Europe ended, Currey became a counselor for veterans. He retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1980 and currently lives in Albany County with his wife of more than 65 years, Wilma.