“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13
Henry Gurke was, by all accounts and purposes, a normal young man. There were no signs that he would do anything particularly extraordinary with his life. Henry was one of eleven children born to immigrant parents and there wasn’t anything about him in childhood that gave a clue as to his destiny.
Henry was born in a small town in North Dakota on November 6, 1922. He grew up doing the normal things boys do. He went to school, and then in April of 1942, at the age of 20, Henry joined the Marine Corps. After finishing his training in San Diego, he was shipped overseas to Samoa. It was there, in August of 1943, that Henry was promoted to Private First Class.
On November 6, 1943, Henry turned 21 years old. There was no time for celebrations however. There was a war to be fought. And so it was that, three days later in Bougainville, Henry found himself sharing a shallow foxhole with his buddy, George Probst, the BAR-man for his unit (Browning Automatic Rifleman). They were defending a vital roadblock and were under heavy enemy fire.
Suddenly, a grenade landed in their foxhole. The official report said this: “The enemy was determined to annihilate them. Private First Class Gurke roughly thrust his companion aside when a grenade landed in their foxhole and threw himself on the deadly missile.” You see, Henry knew that George and his gun were needed to defend that roadblock.
Henry died instantly. He was 21 years old, a man, for a mere three days. Yet, how many men could have made the same decision that Henry did?
Henry was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously (the highest military honor awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty). Additionally, a battleship, The USS Gurke, was named after him. And, there is a Gurke Street in San Diego (where Henry went to boot camp).
Henry never had the chance to marry. He never had children. He never grew into old age. But, his story lives on in the hearts of his family. His act of heroism is a source of great pride for the nieces and nephews he never had the chance to meet. They have proudly passed Henry’s story on to their children and now their grandchildren. And, when he is old enough, it will be told to Henry’s Great, Great, Grand-nephew: Layne Henry. My grandson.
Memorial Day is a day we take to remember. Thank you to those who have given their lives. Thank you to those who continues to serve.