‘Bud’ Hawk: a hero’s hero

John Hawk receives his Medal of Honor from President Truman. - Courtesy of Bainbridge Island Historical Society
John Hawk receives his Medal of Honor from President Truman.
— image credit: Courtesy of Bainbridge Island Historical Society

Medal of Honor recipient visits BHS homecoming festivities.

John “Bud” Hawk is proud of the Medal of Honor he received for valor under fire in World War II. He carries it as a symbol of service for soldiers past and present, happy to explain its significance to all who ask.

The medal, however, defines but one aspect of a man who believes his years educating children served an important purpose, too.

“I don’t hold the medal as an individual. I hold it as an obligation for what it stands for,” said Hawk, now 81. “Who I served with, who died while serving, who is serving now. I learned to accept (the attention).”

A retired schoolteacher and principal, Hawk still does “a pretty good amount” of speaking about his time in the service and the citation presented to him by President Harry Truman in 1945. There are three or four invitations on his desk right now, from throughout the country and the state. And he answers letters and phone calls all the time.

“I make appearances where I think the symbol will do some good,” said Hawk, who grew up on Bainbridge Island and still calls it his home of record although he now resides in Bremerton.

“I’m getting tired, so I’m just saying no (to some requests), which my family had told me to do a long time ago.”

Hawk, however, is loath to turn down opportunities to speak to service people – such as his recent appearance at Airman Leadership School at McChord Air Force Base – and students.

He’s looking forward to being the guest of honor at Bainbridge High School’s Homecoming assembly and alumni reception this Friday, particularly since he graduated from the school twice.

Hawk was born in San Francisco, Calif. His family moved to Tacoma, Seattle and then to Bainbridge by the time he reached third grade in the early 1930s.

The schools were better on Bainbridge and once in class he found he didn’t know anything.

“My mother insisted they send me back to the second grade,” he recalled.

Two weeks after graduating from Bainbridge High School in 1943, Hawk joined the Army. He underwent six months of training and endured six months of combat as a buck sergeant, squad leader, machine gun section.

As the calendar turns, only two years and four days went by between the time he enlisted and got out of the Army; the reality of that experience made it much longer. He was wounded four times and awarded four purple hearts.

He first took enemy fire at Falaise Pocket in France. There, Allied forces tried to encircle the German Seventh Army and Fifth Panzer Army, fighting that marked the end of the Battle of Normandy.

Hawk became “a human aiming stake” for American tanks zeroing in on enemy forces; he basically said, “Fire at me and I’ll duck.”

Hawk received the Medal of Honor for his courage.

As he told a Nebraska writer in 1996: “I was shot through the leg, but it didn’t stop me. They gave me some rest and they said I could go to the hospital or stay with the company, so I stayed with the company. That was August 20. And then in November I got a couple of pieces of shrapnel. Then the record has twice more (injuries) from that time there and I don’t remember the circumstances.”

Coming home

Hawk was 20 when he returned home, sick from his wounds and suffering battle fatigue. A month after his 21st birthday, President Harry Truman put the Medal of Honor around his neck on the steps of the state capital.

That, too, is a great story.

Hawk didn’t want to take a train to Washington, D.C., with his parents and sister in tow, to receive his medal. So his friend, Sen. Warren Magnuson, tried to find a way to get the president to the other Washington.

When Magnuson found out Truman was coming to California for a conference on what to do with post-war Japan, he found his chance. Recorded on film, his meeting with Truman in Olympia became one of Hawk’s prize photographs. He also is happy about the conversation his father shared with the president.

Back home, Bremerton threw Hawk a parade and he faced some more serious challenges.

“I got home out of the Army and, boy, you think war is hell, try going to college when you’re beat up mentally and physically, not too smart to start with and didn’t pay much attention in high school,” he said. “Sweating and worrying about trying to be a Romeo and a breadwinner and a student all at the same time. I pretty near failed at all three. I wasn’t gonna get married because I didn’t think I could support the girl.”

The army threatened to put him back in the hospital if he went to college – the ultimate threat, he said – so he decided to go back to Bainbridge High for more studies. There wasn’t much call for trained machine gunners, he reasoned.

“It only was two years since I left,” he said. “It was different, but still the same. I ended up learning something and helping the teachers. They had the idea I would make a good teacher.”

The 1946 annual shows Hawk in full military uniform, complete with his Medal of Honor.

“I finally had this one tremendous stroke of intelligence – I don’t have many – and married the girl (in 1948),” he said. “I held out for three years, but then she finally said, ‘Go ahead and do it.’”

Hawk enrolled at the University of Washington and struggled that first year. He took the summer off, worked and went back in the fall. He got sick and withdrew from school. After nearly seven years of taking classes at a junior college and at UW, Hawk earned a degree in biology with a minor in English.

Math was hard for him to retain, but natural science, history and geography came much more easily. He still believes the Veterans Administration was in cahoots with UW to give him a “C” and get him out of there.

Hawk taught fifth and sixth grades beginning in 1952 in Bremerton. He started at Tracyton Elementary and then moved to Brownsville Elementary, where he ultimately taught sixth grade and “was demoted to principal.” He taught and ran the school for six years.

“With a new family I had to think about earning more money. It went along all right,” he said. “I had the ability to get along with my teachers. I supported them and they supported me. I always thought I had the best staff in the place.”

Hawk liked his teaching. He didn’t care for the bureaucracy that took teachers away from their classrooms and principals away from helping their teachers. And he refused to wear a tie.

“I didn’t think it was necessary to patrol the cafeteria, check the playground or load and unload school buses,” he said, adding the image he wanted to project was that of someone the students wanted to trust and listen to. His wife convinced him to wear the tie, however, and forgo the jacket.

He retired in 1983 and set out to remodel the house for his wife Madeline. Two years later, she died unexpectedly of a heart attack.

“It was a shock,” he said. “They were sure right – you survive a war in reasonable shape, and tragedy jumps out and smacks you around.”

Scott Nickell, a 1979 BHS graduate with 23 years in the Navy and now a training specialist at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Keyport, describes his friend Hawk as “a splendid gentleman.”

Nickell found out about BHS’s famous alumni when he helped a photographer for the 2003 book “Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty.”

“My goal is to see a school named after him,” Nickell said. “He is more proud of what he has done as an educator than of receiving a medal. He’s just an everyday guy who did what he was supposed to do. He’s a genuine Kitsap County hero.”

That’s not the way Hawk sees it. He’s just a guy with a few hobbies. He likes to garden and loves to fish.

“The closest thing I have to religion is fishing,” he said. “My fishing buddies have died or moved. I had a boat and I may get another. I used to love to fish all the way around Bainbridge...and I dug clams like a madman.”

Hawk also has a woodworking business, making toys and children’s furniture. He sells some, but gives most of them to family, close friends and special people. He also continues to cut firewood for fun and a few bucks.

“I learned that on Bainbridge Island, where it wasn’t a hobby. My dad, a commercial artist, had an old Chevrolet ice truck that he bought in Seattle. It was a 1928 model, almost an open cab and had only three gears. We hauled wood in that,” he said.

He keeps his pledge to his daughter never to use the chainsaw when he’s alone. He and a friend cut 50 cords or more a year and they sell it to people they know, even hauling some of it to Bainbridge.

And he still talks to people and groups who are interested in his military history and his days as an educator.

In 60 years of giving interviews and lectures, Hawk has never written down his speeches, preferring to put down the four points he wanted to make.

“From elementary school teachers clear up to veterans’ associations, it’s not the same speech. I gave it up. I just wing it,” he said. “After following servicemen and politicians, I have learned when to shut up. I will tailor what I say (to my audience). Retired senior officers are going to recite their whole careers for you.”

In return, he expects a measure of respect for what the medal stands for, but he doesn’t always get it. Last month Hawk went to the Naval Yard in Bremerton for a change of command ceremony. He was introduced, but the medal was never mentioned.

“What do you do? Raise holy hell or let your blood pressure sprout out your ears?” he asked. “The medal is a symbol of service and of all the places it has to be introduced, this was one of them. That’s protocol. They were high-ranking Navy officials...they know who I am.

“I have the symbol. I show it and explain that, as I see it, it belongs to everyone who has served and is serving.”

For his Bainbridge High School Homecoming appearance this week, Hawk will wear blue jeans, a brightly colored shirt and his medal. He’ll put on a jacket that displays his Medal of Honor patch and his combat infantry patch, among others.

“Respect for honorable service, and you put a period after that,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s not just the people up front. Without the back, there is no front. Everybody’s important.”

* * * * *

A tale of battlefield valor

In a June 21, 1945 letter signed by President Harry Truman, authorizing John D. “Bud” Hawk’s Congressional Medal of Honor, Hawk’s battlefield valor was recounted:

“During an enemy counterattack, his position was menaced by a strong force of tanks and infantry. His fire forced the infantry to withdraw, but an artillery shell knocked out his gun and wounded him in the right thigh. Securing a bazooka, he and another man stalked the tanks and forced them to retire to a wooded section. In the lull which followed, Sgt. Hawk reorganized two machine gun squads and, in the face of intense enemy fire, directed the assembly of one workable weapon from two damaged guns.

“When another enemy assault developed, he was forced to pull back from the pressure of spearheading armor. Two of our tank destroyers were brought up. Their shots were ineffective because of the terrain until Sgt. Hawk, despite his wound, boldly climbed to an exposed position on a knoll where, unmoved by fusillades from the enemy, he became a human aiming stake for the destroyers.

“Realizing that his shouted fire directions could not be heard above the noise of battle, he ran back to the destroyers through a concentration of bullets and shrapnel to correct the range. He returned to his exposed position, repeating this performance until two of the tanks were knocked out and a third driven off. Still at great risk, he continued to direct the destroyers’ fire into the Germans’ wooded position until the enemy came out and surrendered.”

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