A Cause Greater Than Self

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Alex Kershaw
March 9, 2023

I walked the streets of Nuremberg, searching for where he had fought. I followed his path along the Bayreuther Strasse to the center of the city. I knew he was just twenty-years-old, a lieutenant in command of A Company of the 15th Infantry Regiment, when he led his men toward the very heart of Nazi darkness on April 18, 1945. He had first seen combat on Omaha Beach on D-Day. His name was Michael Daly, one of the last Americans to earn the Medal of Honor in Europe in WWII.

Michael Daly’s plebe photo at West Point

Six foot and four inches tall, rake thin, Daly had quit West Point and joined the First Infantry Division as a lowly private. He refused to wait until he graduated. There was a war on. He wanted to do his part. He slogged across Normandy, was wounded in fall 1944, and then transferred to the “Marne Men” – the 3rd Division – just in time to fight in the Colmar Pocket in the same regiment as Audie Murphy. Having received a battlefield commission, he crossed the swirling Rhine and had earned three Silver Stars by the time he picked his way through the rubble of Nuremberg where Hitler had made his famous speeches during the Thirties.

I could imagine him gripping his carbine with his long, slim fingers, sleepless, jacked up on adrenaline, alert for sniper fire, worried above all that any of the young Americans under his command might be killed so close to the end of the war. As I moved toward the center of the city, I could picture him sprinting as bullets smashed into the pavement at his feet, serving as the scout of his company and, as a fellow officer recalled, “taking all the major risks himself and fearlessly disregarding deadly enemy fire.”  

Near flower-beds in a park, I found a sign explaining Daly’s actions on 18 April – how he had, as his MOH citation reads, engaged “in 4 single-handed fire fights with a desperate, powerfully armed enemy… [and] killed 15 Germans, silenced 3 enemy machine guns and wiped out an entire enemy patrol.”

I moved beyond the park, in awe, toward a high wall around Nuremberg’s medieval core. I found the place where his war ended. I thought of his exhaustion, having gone two nights without sleep, as he tried to get over the wall on 19 April, determined to destroy the last Nazi resistance in the city.    

As Daly climbed over the wall, there was a whack of a sniper round. The bullet clipped his ear and then tore through Daly’s face, from right to left, breaking his upper and lower jaw, passing through his palate. I stood not far from where he had then fallen and where, choking on his blood, he took a pencil out of his pocket and stuck it down his throat to keep his windpipe open – a primitive from of tracheostomy. Miraculously, Daly survived.

Michael Daly receiving the Medal of Honor from President Truman at the White House, August 1945

Daly came home, a reluctant public hero, receiving the Medal of Honor at the White House that August of 1945. He struggled to adjust to peacetime like so many who had endured unimaginable loss, violence, and trauma. He could not find a purpose as all-consuming and noble as leading young Americans during the liberation of Europe. Yet, finally, he discovered a “cause greater than self,” as he put it, by serving others, devoting great energy and time to a hospital run by a Roman Catholic order of nuns in Connecticut.

Michael Daly receives a hero’s welcome on his return to Connecticut, August 1945

Daly cared most about the poorest patients at the hospital he supported in his last decades, and those who were terminally ill, comforting them, often attending their funerals. In the ruins of Nuremberg, there had been no time to mourn others, to show love other than by trying to keep them alive.  

I spent two years researching Daly and other Medal of Honor recipients from his division in WWII. I was deeply moved, sometimes to tears, as I followed his odyssey across Europe. I was delighted to meet his daughter and learn from her how much his time in combat had so profoundly shaped him. As this year’s National Medal of Honor Day approaches on 25 March, I think of others among the 472 Americans like Daly who received the Medal for actions in WWII. So very often, they made the ultimate sacrifice to save others. They were utterly selfless.  

Before I left Nuremberg, I stood where Hitler had ranted and raved, indoctrinating vast rallies with the evil of Nazism. I thought of all the rivers and mountains that had to be crossed by Michael Daly’s fellow “Marne Men” and of all the villages and towns that needed to be seized, from North Africa to Germany, before Europe was set free.

I often talk about Michael Daly when I visit high schools as part of Friends of the National WWII Memorial’s education program, Character is Destiny. I tell young Americans that Michael Daly would want them to find a “cause greater than self,” to give back, to help others, and to remember him and his generation.

Michael Daly later in life

In 2008, Michael Daly learned that he had pancreatic cancer. He faced death with the same composure and dignity he had shown in battle, pointing out that he should have died in Nuremberg. A priest had given Daly last rites in 1945, so severe was his wound, and again a priest visited him as he lay on his deathbed in July 2008. Before saluting the priest, Daly told him that the “world needs peacemakers.” That is indeed the case. But thank God there were warriors like Daly in WWII who could lead with extraordinary courage, serving a righteous cause. As he himself urged, we must never forget them.