This 'American Marine' from Croatia Earned Two Medals of Honor

Capt. Louis Cukela wearing both of his Medals of Honor.
Capt. Louis Cukela wearing both of his Medals of Honor. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

During his lifetime, Louis Cukela was called "an Austrian, Slav, Yugoslav, Serb, and of course, Croatian," according to historian C. Michael McAdams. Born in Austria, Cukela was actually a Roman Catholic Croatian, though he preferred simply to call himself an "American Marine." On July 18, 1918, the Croatian-American Marine sergeant acquired a title that transcended all nationalities -- hero.

The Marines are famous for being the first American forces to go ashore in an international crisis, but the Army became the first landing force when the United States joined World War I in 1917. The Marines successfully lobbied for two regiments to accompany the Army overseas, and thus Cukela's 66th Company of the 2nd Division, 5th Marines, went to France in 1918. The 5th Marines so distinguished themselves there that today they remain one of only two Marine regiments entitled to wear the fourragère of the French Croix de Guerre (the 6th Marines also hold this honor).

On July 17, 1918, the 66th Company of the 5th Marines massed with their comrades in the Bois de Retz near Soissons to intercept the well-established German Army in its forward march. Tired, hungry, dirty, their canteens long since emptied, the men nevertheless faced their foes with courage on July 18. Cukela soon realized that the Allied position would be hopeless if the enemy guns were not silenced.

"Sgt. Cukela crawled out from the flank and made his way toward German lines in the face of heavy fire, disregarding the warnings of his comrades," his first official Medal of Honor citation reads. "He succeeded in getting behind the enemy position and rushed a machine-gun emplacement, killing or driving off the crew with his bayonet."

But Cukela was not finished; he "bombed out the remaining part of the strong point with German hand grenades" and captured two machine guns and four men, according to his second Medal of Honor citation. Cukela's bravery that day was such that he was awarded two Medals of Honor -- one from the Army and one from the Navy.

"Due to the magnificent dash and power displayed on the field of Soissons by our First and Second Divisions, the tide of war was definitely turned in favor of the Allies," Gen. John J. Pershing reported.

Cukela, who finished his military career as a major, is one of the "Giants of the Corps," whose name and picture can be found at many Marine bases around the world. He died in 1956, the last living double Medal of Honor winner and a credit to his heritage and his country.

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