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From Independence Hall to JBLM

Fitness Center honors 2nd ID soldier

The McVeigh Sports and Fitness Center honors Sgt. John McVeigh, a recipient of the Medal of Honor. Photo credit: J.M. Simpson

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Independence Hall -- the place where the Founding Fathers labored to create the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution -- was the right place for the posthumous awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor to Sgt. John McVeigh.

A native of Philadelphia, the first capital of what would become the United States, McVeigh came of age during the Great Depression, a time when many Americans lived frugal lives.

The depression had hit the McVeighs hard.  Unable to afford to keep the family together, young John was sent to live with an aunt and uncle who owned a bar.

Not long after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, McVeigh enlisted in the Army.  Assigned to H Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, McVeigh was sent to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, for basic training.

By October 1943, McVeigh's unit sailed for Northern Ireland, where it drilled on the bleak moors in preparation for the invasion of France. Later sent to southern Wales in April 1944, the 23rd put the finishing touches on the role it would play in the invasion of Normandy.

On June 8, 1944, the 23rd Infantry Regiment landed on Omaha Beach. A little more than a month later, McVeigh was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism for his role in helping to break up a German counterattack during the regiment's advance through the thick hedgerows of Normandy.

He was promoted to sergeant on the spot.

At the end of August, the 23rd had advanced 210 miles east to Brest, France, where they faced the crack 2nd German Paratroop Division.

"Pray for me Honey," McVeigh's final letter to his wife, Virginia, read.  "It's getting bad over here."

It was the kind of bad that brought the heroic best out of him.

At dusk Aug. 29, McVeigh and his heavy machine gun unit started to assume a defensive position on ground they had taken when the Germans launched a sudden counterattack.

As McVeigh's soldiers hurried to get their machine gun up, he held off the enemy with his M1 rifle.

Running out of ammunition, McVeigh drew his trench knife and charged the enemy.

"In a savage hand-to-hand struggle, Sgt. McVeigh killed one German with a knife, his only weapon, and was advancing on three more of the enemy when he was shot down and killed with small arms fire at point-blank range," reads the citation accompanying his Medal of Honor.

McVeigh's actions allowed the remaining soldiers in his squad to concentrate their machine gun fire on the Germans, stopping the assault and continuing to hold the high ground.

Somewhere in Independence Hall on that day in April 1945, the ghost of George Washington -- the first commander of the United States Army -- bowed his head in respect.

About a year later and at the end of World War II, a gymnasium was completed on Fort Lewis. Since the 2nd Infantry Division was stationed there at the time, it was decided to name the building after one of its own.

Today, it is the McVeigh Sports and Fitness Center.

Within the center is a swimming pool named to honor Technician 4th Class Truman Kimbro.  An engineer in the 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion during World War II, he holds another chapter of honor in the history of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

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