2019 editor’s note: First Lt. Jimmie W. Monteith Jr. of Richmond was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery and “conspicuous gallantry” after landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. This remembrance ran in The Richmond News Leader on May 27, 1991, to mark Memorial Day.
Under wet gray skies, the big, red-haired Army lieutenant from Richmond and his platoon hit the Normandy beachhead in France.
It was D-day — June 6, 1944.
The lieutenant and his troops didn’t get far because German forces were well-entrenched on those beaches near Colleville-sur-Mer. The platoon members found themselves trapped by withering machine gun and rifle fire and an artillery barrage.
Before the fighting was over on the Allies’ longest day to free Nazi-occupied Europe, 1st Lt. Jimmie W. Monteith Jr. would be dead. He was just short of his 27th birthday.
He died a hero’s death.
So profound was his bravery that he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Two friends of Monteith remember him with reverence on this Memorial Day.
They recalled his days spent growing up and attending Thomas Jefferson High School and Virginia Polytechnic Institute, which is now Virginia Tech.
“He was the closest thing to a brother I ever had,” James A. Glascock, a retired lawyer, said by telephone from his home in Short Hills, N.J.
“I never knew anybody who didn’t like Jimmie,” said B. Chewning Watkins, who lives at Weymouth in Midlothian.
“He wasn’t one who went around and bragged. He was a very mild gentleman,” he said.
Monteith graduated from Virginia Tech in 1941, was inducted into the U.S. Army in October that year and received his officer training at Fort Benning, Ga.
Attached to the 16th Infantry Regiment in the “Fighting First” 1st Infantry Division, Monteith fought in the African campaign and later in Sicily, where he received a battlefield promotion. In November 1943, he was transferred to England to prepare for the Allied invasion at Normandy.
An enlisted man of Monteith’s unit was witness to his heroics on that gray day in June.
He told this story:
When the platoon hit the beach under heavy fire, Monteith and his men realized they had to get past layers of barbed wire that lay ahead of the advancing troops.
“Monteith led a group that blasted the wire,” the enlisted man said.
“But beyond that lay two minefields.”
Monteith led his platoon through the fields despite fire coming from two German machine gun positions and a pillbox.
He returned to the beach, located two Allied tanks and guided them to a position from which they knocked out the pillbox.
Then, under Monteith’s leadership, his men silenced the machine guns.
During the battle, the Germans managed to surround Monteith and his men. The Germans yelled to Monteith to surrender, but he ignored them.
Instead, he lobbed a grenade at the sound of the voices and smashed a machine gun nest.
Two more machine guns — one on each of the platoon’s flanks — opened fire.
Monteith directed a rifle squad to fire on one of the guns, while he sneaked up and blasted it with hand grenades.
Then he crossed a 200-yard open field under fire to launch rifle grenades at the other gun.
Said the Army witness:
“Monteith started to recross the field when a light machine gun cut him down.”
In a simple ceremony at the home of Jimmie Monteith’s mother on March 21, 1945, Brig. Gen. Rupert E. Starr, representing Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, chief of U.S. Army ground forces, placed the Medal of Honor around her neck. On hand during the brief ceremony was Gov. Colgate W. Darden Jr.
Mrs. Monteith, who lived at 1511 Confederate Ave. in Ginter Park, hung the medal with its blue ribbon across a photo of her dead son.
Tears welled in her eyes.
“This home that he loved was blessed and honored today,” she said. “I feel that he is with us in spirit.
“He was a radiantly happy person.”
Monteith was born in Low Moor in Alleghany County on July 1, 1917, and his family moved to Richmond when he was a child.
He grew into a 6-foot-2-inch, red-haired athlete. He loved sports, especially football, which he played at Thomas Jefferson and later at VPI.
“He was certainly an outgoing fellow,” James Glascock said of his boyhood pal. “He could have sold iceboxes to the Eskimos.
“We were next-door neighbors from the time I was 10 until I went away to college and law school and got married,” Glascock said. “We were just the same age and were in each other’s houses all the time. He taught me to swim, too.”
Chewning Watkins said he knew Monteith at TeeJay and Virginia Tech.
“At VPI, I was about a year ahead of him and he was a ‘rat’ under me,” Watkins said.
“I used to tease Jimmie as to what I was going to do to him,” Watkins said about the prospect of freshman hazing at Virginia Tech, “but he knew I wasn’t.”
Instead of getting scared, “he’d just give me that big old smile, and that was that.”
In 1960, an Army Reserve training center in Richmond was named in honor of Jimmie Monteith. His name also graces an Army amphitheater in Alabama, a barracks in Nuremberg, Germany, a dormitory at Virginia Tech and a center in the McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond.
An award in his honor has been given annually since 1951 by the Richmond-area alumni of Virginia Tech for athletic, academic and military achievement.
In the mid-1980s, Glascock went to France — to Omaha Beach — to pay respects to a long-lost friend.
“When I found Jimmie’s gravestone at a distance, you could see it was different from the others,” he said.
The headstone almost glowed.
The carving was inlaid gold leaf, and the sun’s rays refracted off the headstone from a distance.
The Army, Glascock said, inlaid the inscription with gold leaf because it marked the grave of a Medal of Honor recipient.
There was a pause during the telephone interview.
“I defy anybody to stand there,” Glascock said, “and not get emotional.”