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

Allied Troops landing in Sicily during WWII.
Allied Troops landing in Sicily during WWII.

Call it a unique lineage only those who have worn a uniform would understand, but military history is part of the esprit de corps which can bind the generations. The feelings experienced by a continental soldier when a musket ball flew overhead were likely very similar to a Marine experiencing a 7.62mm round fired from an AK-47.  

Courage and gallantry seem timeless. What greater love has a man than to give his life for his friends. For Robert D. Maxwell and Kyle Carpenter, they certainly put their lives on the line to prove that statement true. As the oldest and youngest living recipients of the Medal of Honor, they hurled themselves onto live grenades.

The Greatest Generation

The WWII generation is well-regarded for what they had to endure and survive during that war. 

Robert D. Maxwell was born on October 26, 1920, in Boise, Idaho. He joined the Army as most men his age did in the early 1940s. He was assigned as a technician with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. His job as a wireman consisted of running large rolls of cable and setting up phone lines to and from the command post. Initially given a rifle, his position was redesignated as being non-combatant, and he was provided with a pistol instead. 

Maxwell served in the North African campaign and then in 1943, Sicily and Italy. During the Battle of Anzio, he received his first harsh taste of the realities of war when enemy fire struck him. After recovering in hospital, he returned to his unit in time for the invasion of Southern France. By September 1944, his unit was pushing into Eastern France.

Sherman tank coming ashore at Anzio.
Sherman tank coming ashore at Anzio.

On September 7 while manning an observation post with three other soldiers, they were attacked by overwhelming numbers of German infantry. Armed only with .45 caliber pistols they fought the enemy onslaught of machine-gun fire and grenades. Despite the unequal match, Maxwell encouraged his fellow soldiers with his aggressive tenacity. When a grenade landed in their midst, with nothing but his unarmoured body and a blanket he threw himself on top of it. Absorbing the blast which maimed his body, Maxwell saved the lives of his friends. Remarkably, he survived and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on April 1945.

From One Generation to the Next

Born 45 years after Maxwell on October 17, 1989, Kyle Carpenter followed Maxwell into the halls of military history. He was raised in Flowood, Mississippi, and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps at the age of 19 in 2009. Assigned to Fox Company 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, Lance Corporal Carpenter was deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan as an automatic-weapon gunner. Despite heavy losses, the Taliban in Afghanistan were continuing to make their presence known and sought every opportunity to expand their influence.

On November 21, 2010, Carpenter and a platoon-sized force were manning a patrol base they had recently established in a village in the Marjah district. During daylight hours, the Taliban carried out sporadic attacks on their position in an attempt to dislodge them from the base. 

Official Photo of U.S. Marine Cpl. William Kyle Carpenter, Medal of Honor Recipient.
Official Photo of U.S. Marine Cpl. William Kyle Carpenter, Medal of Honor Recipient.

Kyle Carpenter and a fellow Marine were manning a rooftop position near the perimeter of the patrol base using sandbags as cover. As the Taliban began another attack, an enemy grenade found its target and landed inside their position.

With only seconds to decide a course of action, Carpenter flung his body upon the grenade without hesitation. Absorbing the brunt of the blast, Carpenter’s body was thrown into the air. In doing so, he saved the life of his fellow Marine. He suffered severe injuries to his face and right arm from the blast including multiple shrapnel wounds and the loss of his right eye.

For his actions that day, Marine Kyle Carpenter received the Medal of Honor on June 19, 2014, and became the nation’s youngest living recipient of the nation’s highest military honor.

A Legacy Sacrifice

Over 65 years apart and faced with the perilous reality of a live enemy grenade with only seconds to process the situation, both men reacted with courage. Following a long line of military tradition to uphold the highest traditions of their service, these men willingly offered their lives for their friends. That they both survived is a remarkable event in itself.

Jeff Edwards

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