Saturday, November 09, 2013

TFH 11/9: PFC Henry Gurke, USMC

Henry Gurke was born in Neche, North Dakota on November 6, 1922. After graduating from high school in 1940, he joined the New-Deal Civilian Conservation Corps and served with it until October, 1941. He then worked as a truck driver until enlisting in the United States Marine Corps on April 15, 1942.

After recruit training in San Diego, Gurke was first trained as an artilleryman but once overseas for combat in the Pacific, he volunteered for the Marine Raiders and was assigned to the 3rd Raider Battalion. The 3rd Raiders landed as part of the assault force for the Bougainville Campaign.

On November 9, 1943, just three days after his twenty-first birthday, Private First Class Henry Gurke was defending a road block against a Japanese counterattack. When an enemy grenade fell into the foxhole he shared with another Marine armed with a heavy weapon critical to the defense (likely a M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle), he made the same heroic decision his fellow Marine Herbert J. Thomas, Jr. had made two days before. Like Sergeant Thomas, Henry Gurke posthumously received our Nation's highest honor.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (G-L):


Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Marine Corps

Citation: For extraordinary heroism and courage above and beyond the call of duty while attached to the 3d Marine Raider Battalion during action against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands area on 9 November 1943. While his platoon was engaged in the defense of a vital road block near Empress Augusta Bay on Bougainville Island. Pfc. Gurke, in company with another Marine, was delivering a fierce stream of fire against the main vanguard of the Japanese. Concluding from the increasing ferocity of grenade barrages that the enemy was determined to annihilate their small, 2-man foxhole, he resorted to a bold and desperate measure for holding out despite the torrential hail of shells. When a Japanese grenade dropped squarely into the foxhole, Pfc. Gurke, mindful that his companion manned an automatic weapon of superior fire power and therefore could provide more effective resistance, thrust him roughly aside and flung his own body over the missile to smother the explosion. With unswerving devotion to duty and superb valor, Pfc. Gurke sacrificed himself in order that his comrade might live to carry on the fight. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.

Gurke's remains were buried in several different temporary cemeteries in the South Pacific until they were repatriated to the United States after the war's end. He now rests in peace at the Neche Union Cemetery in his home town.

The United States Navy honored the young Marine's heroism by naming the Gearing-class destroyer USS Gurke (DD-783) for him. The ship served our Navy from May 12, 1945 until January 30, 1976. In 1977, the ship was transferred to Greece and served for another twenty years as the HS Tombazis (D215).

The Marine Raiders were disbanded and reincorporated into regular Marine infantry units prior to the end of the Second World War. While not referred to as "raiders" per se, the Leathernecks of today's Marine Corps Special Operations Command carries on the heritage of their 1940s forebears.

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