10th Mountain Division’s first Medal of Honor recipient served with distinction during WWII
Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Nov. 9, 2021) – Fort Drum’s fitness facilities are unique in the services they provide, but one thing they share in common is evident on the front of each building.
They all are named in honor of a different Medal of Honor recipient.
The Magrath Sports Complex has the distinction of bearing the name of the 10th Mountain Division’s first Soldier to receive the nation’s highest military honor.
The son of Gerry and Anna Magrath, John David Magrath was born in East Norwalk, Connecticut, on July 4, 1924. Magrath was active in the Boy Scouts, earning 21 merit badges while serving as a patrol leader, troop scribe and assistant scoutmaster for Troop 16 until he became an Eagle Scout in 1943. He also was an active member of Christ Episcopal Church and sang in the choir.
Magrath enlisted in the Army during his junior year of high school, along with three of his friends – all members of the Norwalk Ski Club. Magrath took his oath of enlistment on March 4, 1943, in Hartford, Connecticut, and eagerly volunteered to join the Army’s specialized division of mountain troopers.
He had two brothers, Gerry and William, already serving in the Army when Magrath arrived at the 10th Mountain Division training site at Camp Hale, Colorado. While assigned to the 86th Infantry Regiment, Magrath served in Companies A, F and M – as Soldiers were often moved based on reorganizational needs of the Army. He later transferred to the 85th Mountain Infantry.
Magrath served as a radio operator during combat operations in Italy. On April 14, 1945, Company G received orders to attack German positions on Hill 909 near the town of Castel d’Aiano.
The 20-year-old Magrath volunteered to assist a reconnaissance party forward when they encountered enemy machine gun fire at the summit of Hill 909. Magrath charged the German positions with only his semiautomatic M-1 rifle. He killed two Germans and wounded three others, forcing them to surrender. He then single-handedly took out several other enemy machine gun emplacements while using a captured German machine gun.
His Medal of Honor citation reads:
“Carrying this enemy weapon across an open field through heavy fire, he neutralized two more machine gun nests; he then circled behind four other Germans, killing them with a burst as they were firing on his company. Spotting another dangerous enemy position to his right, he kneeled with the machine gun in his arms and exchanged fire with the Germans until he had killed two and wounded three.”
The enemy responded with mortar and artillery fire on the company’s newly won position. In McKay Jenkins’ book, “The Last Ridge,” the author wrote how Edward Nickerson, one of Magrath’s company mates, found him during the battle. Company G needed to regroup and Nickerson was tasked with retrieving Magrath, who was lying prone on a hilltop, still firing from the German MG-34 with a long ammunition belt feeding the weapon. Before he departed for the company area, Magrath provided Nickerson a quick tutorial on the German weapon.
Magrath volunteered to make contact with each platoon in the company to compile a casualty report. While sprinting across an open field under heavy artillery fire, Magrath was killed instantly by mortar shells exploding around him.
It proved to be the 10th Mountain Division’s costliest day of battle with 553 casualties, including 114 dead.
Magrath’s body was buried in a Revolutionary War cemetery in his hometown. During the burial ceremony, a Boy Scout who Magrath had mentored played “Taps.”
Magrath was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on July 18, 1946. According to a War Department letter to his family, the First Army commanding general would select an officer to represent the president in presenting the medal to the family. It wasn’t until 1980 when the Medal of Honor ceremonies would be formally conducted at the White House.
Sepp Scanlin, 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum Museum director, noted that the division was inactivated on Nov. 30, 1945, so there would have been no formal 10th Mountain Division representation to honor their only Medal of Honor recipient. He said it would be another decade until the Magrath family reconnected with the reactivated 10th Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas.
The occasion was the unveiling of a six-foot stone monument honoring Magrath on Aug. 17, 1955, at Camp Funston, an Army training camp inside Fort Riley. Maj. Gen. George E. Martin, commanding general of the division, read the citation inscribed on the bronze plaque during the ceremony with Magrath’s parents in attendance.
Over the years, more monuments and memorials would ensure that Magrath’s service and sacrifice would long be remembered.
In August 1956, an elementary school in Norwalk, Connecticut, was named in his honor. The school later became the site of the Norwalk Community College, but still maintains a Magrath memorial display.
In September 1994, the 10th Mountain Division (LI) submitted a request to rename the Soldiers Gymnasium to the John D. Magrath Sports Complex. During a memorialization board meeting, one member suggested naming Building 10000, 10th Mountain Division headquarters, after Magrath, but it was decided that the gymnasium would be more appropriate. The Magrath monument at Fort Riley eventually found a new home outside the Fort Drum fitness facility, though the specific date is uncertain.
Dr. Laurie Rush, Fort Drum Cultural Resources manager, said that her counterpart at Fort Riley contacted her in 1998 about what he believed was a missing monument.
“The late John Dendy called in a panic because he was giving a tour, and when the tour group stopped at the Magrath monument, it was gone,” she recalled. “Somehow he figured out that it might be at Fort Drum, and he was very worried that if we ever needed to repair it, we would need to ask him for his special cement recipe.”
The monument previously stood near the entrance to the track, but it was moved to its present location on the other side of the street due to a renovation project.
A similar monument was erected in 2009 outside Castel d’Aiano, Italy, just off the narrow road at the base of Hill 913, close to where Magrath was killed.
Additionally, officials held a dedication ceremony at the 10th Mountain Division Headquarters on April 6, 2001, with the unveiling of a display featuring a commissioned painting of Magrath that depicts his heroic actions.
Magrath Sports Complex is located at 10050 Tigris River Valley Road. For more information, visit https://drum.armymwr.com/programs/magrath-sports-complex.
(Editor’s Note: This is the third article in the Around and About Fort Drum series.)