Medal of Honor winner comes home again

John 'Bud' Hawk enjoys a speaker's comments during Friday's dedication ceremony at the Rolling Bay Post Office The building was officially named after the Bainbridge Island native.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

John "Bud" Hawk was holding court Friday around noon, which is nothing unusual for a Medal of Honor winner sitting in an American Legion hall in his hometown.

He sat behind a table as well-wishers and some old friends approached to say nice things about him. The respect and homage they showed Hawk, who is now 85, was remarkable. But he smiled and politely acknowledged everyone who approached, intently listening to what they said.

It was obvious, however, that he was tiring after attending a ceremony an hour earlier at Rolling Bay, where the U.S. Post Office building was officially given his name.

His demeanor changed, however, when several of the servicemen who had participated in the Rolling Bay festivities surrounded and then peppered him, respectively of course, with pointed questions.

They just wanted to be near him, but they also wanted to know what it was like to live with being given the highest honor of valor presented to a U.S. servicemen for action in combat. They couldn't imagine what that would be like.

He downplayed it, saying, "Sure, it's great to be recognized in the name of your service, but at the time, at the moment I just did what I had to do. Nothing more."

Then a Marine said, "Wow, it must get heavy after a while." Hawk paused, then chose to say nothing. But he revisited the subject later.

"Sure, it bothers me sometimes, but you learn to live with it. You put it in perspective and move on. In time, it was just a small part of my life, but it stuck with me. My life has been about family and teaching children, but, yes, that experience changed me. I was a crazy young man before that, but then I was different."

Hawk, who now lives in Bremerton, moved to Bainbridge as a toddler and graduated from Bainbridge High School in 1943. He joined the U. S. Army two weeks later.

By the summer of 1944, he was a 20-year-old buck sergeant and squad leader battling the enemy at the Falaise Pocket in eastern France. During a sixth-month period in Europe he was wounded four times.

On Aug. 20, 1944, still carrying some shrapnel around in his body from a recent explosion, Hawk was manning a machine gun near Chambois when the Germans mounted a counterattack with infantry and several tanks.

"His fire forced the infantry to withdraw," reads his Medal of Honor bio, "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."

When asked Friday to return to the moment of some 64 years ago, Hawk said he became possessed with one thought: "I think it was the closest thing to a patriotic thought I ever had, that if we didn't catch those tanks right then, we'd have to go all the way to Berlin to get 'em. I didn't like that."

It didn't occur to him, he said, that he should seek aid for his injured leg because "I looked around and I was the only one there. It was up to me."

The German tanks were hidden in the trees and separated from the U.S. "tank destroyers" by a large ditch, "so I went back to our guys to try to get those tanks blown up. But they said they couldn't shoot them if they couldn't see them. So I said, 'I'll get out there on that knoll and show you where they are.' So I did."

Twice he ran out and back, basically serving as a human guidepost, and the Americans destroyed two German tanks and drove a third eastward.

It took him six months to recover from his various injuries, and nine months after his bravery at Chambois, President Harry Truman presented him with the medal at the State Capitol in Olympia.

"I learned about it from a sergeant at Fort Lewis when I was on leave," he said. "It was me screaming bullshit for about 10 minutes before he could convince me it was for real."

In all, Hawk spent two years and four days in the Army. He was ill-prepared for civilian life at first, he said, but he had help.

He married Madeline (his wife, who died in 1981) in 1948 and slowly started piecing his life back together.

He admits he wasn't the best of students, but he was determined and after several years he graduated from the University of Washington. He then spent three decades teaching elementary school at Tracyton and Brownsville, where he also served as principal before retiring in 1983. He loved teaching.

His public appearances are rare these days, but it was obvious Friday that he still enjoys seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and occasionally telling a war story or two. But always with humility, never bravado.

"It was a long time ago," he said. "People are always asking me to relive it, so I still do. But the medal? It's a symbol. I share my experiences because it's important to those who have served and all who are serving today."

He enjoyed the Post office ceremony, which was attended by about 70 people. Washington's congressional delegation, including Rep. Jay Inslee, who sponsored the dedication bill, couldn't attend as planned and sent their aides.

No matter to Hawk, who has seen his share of politicians over the years.

"That was fun," he said. "That used to be our Post Office when I was kid. It hasn't changed much."

Some day, maybe, they'll name a school after him.

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