The Youngest & Oldest Living Medal of Honor Recipients Both Jumped on Live Grenades

Call it a unique lineage only those who have worn a uniform could understand, but military heroism is part of the esprit de corps which binds generations. The feelings experienced by a continental soldier as a musket ball flew overhead were likely very similar to those a Marine felt as a 7.62mm round whizzed by fired from an AK. Courage and gallantry are timeless.

For the oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor, it was the onslaught of an overwhelming German force in WWII where he encountered his rendezvous with military bravery. For the youngest, it was a rooftop in Afghanistan some 65 plus years later that cemented his place in the halls of inexplicable gallantry. Both faced a fight for their lives, and yet both opted to risk their very lives to save those around them.  

The Greatest Generation

The WWII generation is often regarded as the greatest for what they had to endure and survive but for Robert Dale Maxwell, life began as inconspicuous as any. He was born on October 26, 1920, in Boise, Idaho and joined the Army as most men his age did in the early 1940’s. He was subsequently assigned as a technician 5th grade with the 3rd Infantry Division. His job as a wireman consisted of running large rolls of cable to set up phone lines from the command post to other positions. Not the most glamorous role in an epic war, but for each man, there was a purpose.

Initially serving in the North African campaign, Maxwell and his unit continued on into Sicily and then Italy. Maxwell received his first harsh taste of the realities of war when enemy fire wounded him at the Battle of Anzio. He spent months in hospital recovering, before returning to the lines in time for the invasion of Southern France. By September of 1944, his unit was pushing into Eastern France, where his rendezvous with history occurred.

On September 7 while manning an observation post with just three other soldiers, they were attacked by an enemy platoon. Armed only with .45 caliber pistols, Maxwell led the charge against the overwhelming force. Undergoing an onslaught of enemy machinegun fire, he inspired his fellow soldiers to continue the fight. However, Maxwell’s character was fully displayed when the enemy began launching grenades as close as 10 yards away. One found its target and landed in their position. With nothing but his unarmoured body and a blanket, he thrust himself on top of it absorbing the blast which maimed his body. Maxwell saved the lives of his friends and, remarkably, he survived. His tale is one of many in a long legacy of gallantry.

US Army troops landing at Anzio in Operation Shingle, 22 January 1944.
US Army troops landing at Anzio in Operation Shingle, 22 January 1944.

From One Generation to the Next

Born some 45 years after Maxwell’s heroic bravery, Marine Kyle Carpenter followed his footsteps into the halls of military history. Born on October 17, 1989, in Jackson, Mississippi, Carpenter enlisted in the US Marine Corps at the age of 19 in 2009. Assigned to Fox Company 2nd Battalion 9th Marines, Carpenter was deployed to Helmand Province Afghanistan. Despite heavy losses throughout the war, the Taliban were continuing to make their presence known in Helmand Province and sought every opportunity to expand their influence.

On November 21, 2010, Carpenter was with a platoon manning a patrol base the Marines had recently established in the Marjah district. During daylight hours, the Taliban attacked their position in an attempt to dislodge them from the area. Reinforced by a squad from the Afghan National Army, the Marines defended the patrol base. Kyle Carpenter and a fellow Marine were manning a rooftop near the perimeter using sandbags as cover. As they continued to engage the Taliban, an enemy grenade found its target landing inside their position.

Within seconds, Carpenter flung himself upon the grenade, absorbing the brunt of the blast. He was thrown into the air and sustained severe wounds with the eventual loss of one eye. In doing so, however, he saved the life of his fellow Marine. For his actions that day, Kyle Carpenter received the Medal of Honor and became the nation’s youngest living recipient of the nation’s highest military honor.

US Marines on patrol in Marjah.
US Marines on patrol in Marjah.

A Legacy of Sacrifice

Over 65 years apart, the sacrifice remains the same. When faced with the perilous reality of a live enemy grenade and only seconds to process the situation, both men acted similarly. Following a long line of military tradition to uphold the highest traditions of their service, these men willingly offered their lives to save their friends. That they both survived is remarkable. They are alive today as the youngest and oldest recipients in testimony to inexplicable gallantry.   

Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE