‘A Heroic Example of Courage and Fortitude’

U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. Luther Skaggs Jr. hoped the night was dark enough
– and his foxhole deep enough – to hide him from the Japanese troops.

But an enemy hand grenade landed beside him and exploded. The blast
mangled his left leg.

  Despite significant pain from a grenade explosion that led to his amputation, Skaggs refused to give up his position and continued fighting against Japanese troops.
  Despite significant pain from a
grenade explosion that led to his amputation, Skaggs refused to give up his
position and continued fighting against Japanese troops.
  Images: U.S. Marine Corps

The pain was searing. He refused to summon a corpsman in fear that he
would reveal his outfit’s position.

So the 21-year-old Kentuckian — called “a tough little
guy” by his buddies — wrapped a tourniquet around his bloody,
shrapnel-shredded limb. He stayed in the foxhole for 8 more hours, shooting his
rifle and tossing grenades at the Japanese troops.

A hero’s reward

Skaggs’ heroism gained him the Medal of Honor and promotion to
corporal. But it cost him the lower part of his leg.

He was still on crutches from the amputation when President Harry S.
Truman fastened the medal and its starry, sky-blue ribbon around his neck at
the White House in July 1945.

Skaggs died on April 4, 1976, at the age of 53 years, after a battle
with lung cancer. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, but not
forgotten in his native Henderson County, in western Kentucky.

A chosen path

Skaggs joined the Marine Corps in 1942. He landed in Guam as a mortar
man with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Division.

Skaggs was a squad leader with a mortar section of a rifle company,
according to his Medal of Honor citation, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt
signed. He won his country’s highest decoration for valor on July 21-22.

“When the section leader became a casualty under a heavy mortar
barrage shortly after landing, Skaggs promptly assumed command and led the
section through intense fire for a distance of 200 yards to a position from
which to deliver effective coverage of the assault on a strategic cliff,”
the citation reads. “Valiantly defending this vital position against
strong enemy counterattacks during the night, private first class Skaggs was
critically wounded when a Japanese grenade lodged in his foxhole and exploded,
shattering the lower part of one leg. Quick to act, he applied an improvised
tourniquet and, while propped up in his foxhole, gallantly returned the
enemy’s fire with his rifle and hand grenades for a period of 8 hours,
later crawling unassisted to the rear to continue to fight until the Japanese
had been annihilated. Uncomplaining and calm throughout this critical period,
Pfc. Skaggs served as a heroic example of courage and fortitude to other
wounded men and, by his courageous leadership and inspiring devotion to duty,
upheld the highest traditions for the United States Naval Service.”

Hometown recognition

The Japanese fought hard for Guam, the largest of the Mariana Islands.
About 5,000 Japanese Marines had wrested the island from around 400 Marines and
sailors in December 1941.

The Americans were determined to retake Guam.

Skaggs was part of a 33,000-man assault force of Marines and soldiers
that stormed ashore on July 21, 1944. The island’s 22,000 defenders fought

  Skaggs — still on crutches — was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1945.
  Skaggs — still on crutches
— was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1945.

Guam did not fall to the Americans until August 8. Fighting had been
savage. Almost 6,800 Marines and soldiers were killed or wounded. Fewer than
3,000 Japanese survived; many of the enemy perished in suicide charges.

A year after he sacrificed his limb and almost his life, Skaggs was
welcomed back to the Henderson County seat. The town declared his homecoming
“Luther Skaggs Day.”

“It was a great day,” Lewis N. Johnson was quoted in an April
8, 1976, Henderson Gleaner story about Skaggs’ death written
by Tom Taylor. “The parade that day was probably the most elaborate that
this city has ever seen. Patriotism was high at that time and the turnout to
greet Skaggs was tremendous.”

Taylor also wrote that Skaggs proudly wore his Medal of Honor.

“Johnson and another Hendersonian, Charles D. Mulligan, both
decorated veterans who were wounded in action, shared the speakers’
platform with Skaggs,” he added.

Harold Dodson, who helped organize Luther Skaggs Day, told the
Gleaner how the idea started.

“As soon as Luther was presented the award by the President, we
received a picture of the ceremony here at home. The moment we saw that
photograph, we decided that Henderson would do something to honor him on his
homecoming,” Dodson said. “All the civic and fraternal organizations
in the city pitched in to make the event a success. The military at Ft. Knox
sent down all sorts of equipment, tanks, jeeps and personnel carriers, for the
parade which was probably the biggest ever in Henderson. The carpenters union
built a speakers’ platform in front of the courthouse for free and the
newspaper gave a lot of help. You wouldn’t have believed the crowd that
turned out.”

Taylor wrote that “virtually every photograph of the events of that
day shows Skaggs with an ear-to-ear grin, despite the crutches and pinned-up
pant leg, life-long reminders of the 8-hour ordeal which earned him the
nation’s respect.”

An honored life

After he was discharged from the Marines in 1946, Skaggs stayed in
Washington working as a budget analyst in the Defense Department and later as a
Veterans Administration (VA) employee until his retirement, according to the

“In 1961 he became the first enlisted man to head the Congressional
Medal of Honor Society, an honor he shared with three generals,” Taylor
wrote. “He was elected in Washington during the inauguration of President
John F. Kennedy.”

Skaggs’ life ended in Sarasota, Fla., where he moved after he left
the VA.

“All those who knew Luther Skaggs were stunned and saddened to
learn…of his death,” an April 9, 1976, Gleaner story

The article explained that “Skaggs lost a portion of his left leg
in service to his country. But those who knew him best will tell you that he
never lost the courage and fortitude which carried him through the fighting on

The article concluded that Skaggs’ burial “with full military
rites” was “…a nation’s way of honoring a man in death who,
in life, brought so much honor to himself, his family, his community and his

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