One hundred years ago today, Earle Davis Gregory (Fork Union Military Academy Class of 1915) was in a tight spot.
A Sergeant with the 116th Infantry, 29th Division, his unit was in trouble, engaged in a fierce battle at Bois-de-Consenvoye, north of Verdun, France. Allied troops were beginning the second phase of Meuse-Argonne Offensive, seeking to drive the Germans out of the Argonne Forest, push them back into Germany, and put an end to the Great War, as World War I was then called. Pinned down and taking heavy fire from an enemy machine-gun nest, Sgt. Gregory and his buddies were less concerned with driving the Germans out of France, and more concerned with driving them out of the next trench.
Sergeant Gregory had been in tight spots before. He'd been a member of the US Army since graduating from Fork Union Military Academy in 1915. In fact, Gregory had joined the Virginia National Guard while still a cadet. Following his graduation from high school, Gregory served as a private with the US Army in Mexico, chasing after the infamous revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa during the Mexican Expedition. It was while serving in Mexico that Gregory's leadership and initiative had fueled his rise to the rank of First Sergeant of his company before he'd reached his 20th birthday.
But Gregory's leadership skills and initiative had never faced a test like the one he was now facing.
Shouting, "I will get them," Sergeant Gregory grabbed a rifle and a mortar shell, which he planned to use as a hand grenade, and climbed out of his trench and began crawling in the direction of the enemy fire.
Due to his extraordinary actions on that day, October 8, 1918, Earle Davis Gregory became the first Virginian to be awarded the Medal of Honor for valor. The citation describes what happened next, as Sgt. Gregory "left his detachment of the trench-mortar platoon, and advancing ahead of the infantry, captured a machine gun and three of the enemy. Advancing still further from the machine-gun nest, he captured a 7.5-centimeter mountain howitzer and, entering a dugout in the immediate vicinity, single-handedly captured 19 of the enemy."
Those few words fall far short of describing the full measure of Gregory's courageous actions on that day, condensing the unimaginable sound and fury of combat into a sparse two sentences. Sgt. Gregory single-handedly saved his unit from decimation, captured heavy weapons, cleared a dugout, and took almost two dozen German soldiers as prisoners—by himself. It seems the stuff of movie scripts and best-selling novels.
In one of those odd twists of fate, on that same day, October 8, 1918, just 20 miles to the west of Gregory's position, another Army Sergeant captured an enemy machine gun nest, and, with the help of the seven soldiers remaining in his unit, took as his prisoners 132 German soldiers. That sergeant's name was Alvin York, and when his story was told in the Saturday Evening Post the following year, the name of Sergeant York became known all around the world as an American hero.
Sergeant Gregory, on the other hand, was wounded in the leg while attempting to seize another German trench three days later. He spent six months in the hospital recovering from his injuries and was honorably discharged from the Army on April 25, 1919. In a small ceremony at Camp Lee, Virginia four days later, Major General Omar Bundy presented Gregory with the Medal of Honor. The people of France also honored Gregory, presenting him with their nation's highest awards for valor, including the Croix de Guerre, the Medal of the Legion of Honor, the Médaille Militaire, and the Montengrin Order of Merit.
After the war, Gregory enrolled in college at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, now known as Virginia Tech, graduating in 1923 with a degree in Electrical Engineering. He was twice elected president of his class and in his senior year was elected president of the Corps of Cadets. For the next forty years, Gregory was closely involved in work with the Veterans Hospital in Washington, D. C., and in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he served as Assistant to the Chief of Staff until his retirement in 1962.
In 1963, Virginia Tech's military drill team was named the "Gregory Guard" in his honor.
In 1972, Gregory died at the age of 74 and is buried in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.