Francis Currey, one of the last three surviving recipients of the Medal of Honor for valor during World War II, came of age on a farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where he was taken in by a foster family after he was orphaned at 12.
He worked for an embalmer during high school and planned to enter the profession until he decided, one week after his graduation in 1943, to join the Army.
He shipped out in the spring of 1944 for Europe, making his way from Normandy in the wake of the D-Day invasion to the Netherlands and then, by winter, to the Ardennes region of Belgium.
There, as a 19-year-old private first class during the Battle of the Bulge, the infantryman was credited with almost single-handedly holding back a German attack on the town of Malmedy.
For his actions — heralded days later in a New York Times account reporting that he had “helped immobilize three German tanks, wiped out a house full of Nazis, rescued six of his trapped buddies and saved five wounded men” — Currey received the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest decoration. He died Oct. 8 at his home in Selkirk, N.Y.
He was 94 and had congestive heart failure, said his daughter, Kathryn Domery.
Currey’s Medal of Honor — which he received on July 27, 1945, after the Allied victory in Europe and just before the defeat of Japan — was one of 472 awarded for service during World War II, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
His death leaves two living honorees from that conflict: Charles Coolidge, 98, who was recognized for his actions as an Army technical sergeant in France in fall 1944, and Hershel “Woody” Williams, 96, recognized for his bravery as a Marine Corps corporal at Iwo Jima in the Pacific.
Currey, who was 6 feet tall but only 130 pounds, found himself at the heart of the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive of World War II and a bloody affair resulting in 80,000 American and 100,000 German casualties. The town of Malmedy became infamous as the site of a massacre by Waffen-SS troops of more than 80 U.S. soldiers who had been forced to surrender at the start of the battle.
Four days after the massacre, at about 4 a.m. on Dec. 21, 1944, Currey was in a foxhole when “a German armored column spearheaded by captured American tanks rolled out of the heavy mist,” The Times reported, overpowering an American antitank unit and surrounding Currey and several other soldiers.
Taking shelter in an abandoned paper factory, the American soldiers discovered a bazooka but no ammunition. Currey left the building and, while completely exposed to enemy fire, ran to a supply of ammunition across the street to load the bazooka. With another soldier, he shot at a German tank.
“By what he would later call a miracle,” reads an account in the book “Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty,” “the rocket hit the exact spot where the turret joined the chassis and disabled the vehicle.”
Currey then turned his attention to a German-held stone house, firing with an automatic rifle on three enemy soldiers. “I got all three with one good burst,” he told The Times, “then, while the other fellows in the factory covered me, I stood up in plain sight and knocked down half a wall of that house with the bazooka.
“When I stood up,” he continued, “I saw a number of our guys trapped in a small hole between me and the house. They had been held down there for hours and asked me to help them out.”
In a desperate effort to rescue them, he obtained grenades, which he used to attack the German-held house and German tanks threatening the Americans. When the grenades ran out, he continued firing on the Germans with machine guns.
“Under his covering fire the 5 soldiers were able to retire to safety,” reads the citation for his Medal of Honor. “Deprived of tanks and with heavy infantry casualties, the enemy was forced to withdraw. Through his extensive knowledge of weapons and by his heroic and repeated braving of murderous enemy fire, Sgt. Currey was greatly responsible for inflicting heavy losses in men and material on the enemy, for rescuing 5 comrades, 2 of whom were wounded, and for stemming an attack which threatened to flank his battalion’s position.”
Reflecting on his actions, he told the Times-Union newspaper of Albany, New York, decades later, “It was just one day of nine months of steady combat.”
Francis Sherman Currey was born on June 29, 1925, in Loch Sheldrake, New York, and grew up with his foster parents in nearby Hurleyville.
After joining the Army, he completed Officer Candidate School training, but it was decided, according to “Medal of Honor,” that he was “too immature” for a commission, an irony not lost on those who chronicled his deeds at Malmedy.
“We were all teenagers, the oldest one was maybe twenty-one years old, and I was the one with all the training,” he said in an interview for the book “Voices of the Bulge” by Michael Collins and Martin King. “I knew what I was doing, since I had been in training the year before.”
Besides the Medal of Honor, his military decorations included the Silver Star, the Bronze Star Medal and three awards of the Purple Heart. He attained the rank of sergeant before completing his military service.
After the war, Currey worked as a benefits counselor at a veterans hospital in Albany and ran a landscaping business.
Survivors include his wife of 70 years, the former Wilma French, of Selkirk; three children, Michael Currey and Kathryn Domery, both of Selkirk, and Jonathan Currey of Dudley, Massachusetts; seven grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.
Decades after the war, Currey became the first Medal of Honor recipient to be represented as a G.I. Joe action figure. However, he preferred not to seek attention for his recognition. “I got it; that’s all,” he told the Times-Union in 2013. “I don’t make a big issue out of it.”