“By his heroic initiative and complete disregard for personal safety, [Staff Sgt.] Briles was largely responsible for causing heavy enemy casualties, forcing the surrender of 55 Germans, making possible the salvage of our vehicles, and saving the lives of wounded comrades.”
That is the final line in the official Medal of Honor citation for Herschel “Pete” Briles, Colfax’s renowned First Sergeant who served in the 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion in World War II.
Pete earned the commendation leading a platoon of tank destroyers outside of Scherpenseel, Germany, on Nov. 20, 1944. One of his armored vehicles was struck by a direct artillery hit, taking the life of one man and wounding two others.
Without hesitation, Pete jumped from the safety of his own destroyer and navigated a field showered in small-arms fire and artillery. He lowered himself into the turret, removing the two wounded comrades before extinguishing the fire.
The next morning, Pete observed German infantry approaching his position. The citation reads that he poured down such deadly fire with his machine gun into the enemy ranks, that an entire pocket of 55 Germans surrendered themselves, clearing the way for American reinforcements.
On that same day, Pete repeated his previous exploit, leaving protection to give assistance to a destroyer that was struck by a concealed German tank. He evacuated two wounded soldiers with the help of his comrade, and then returned to the burning vehicle to extinguish the flames.
When he returned to Iowa, Pete didn’t talk often about his military exploits.
“He was like a lot of the others that way,” said Robert Briles, Pete’s nephew. “He always said that he didn’t deserve the honor, and that there were others who had done more than he had.”
Robert recalled that the few occasions when Pete would reminisce back to the days of his service, he would sometimes break down into tears as he recalled his fallen comrades and what they had gone through.
State Senator Dennis Black, who published a book about Iowan Medal of Honor recipients, echoed that sentiment in an opinion piece he wrote for the Des Moines Register.
“Briles downplayed his deeds when he was honored on Aug. 21, 1945, in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House,” Black wrote. “Briles looked directly into the president’s eyes and responded: ‘Mr. President, I am no hero. I only did what I had to do. The real heroes never made it home.”
Robert Briles remembers his uncle for far more than his military accomplishments, recounting his days in Iowa upon his return, living the life of a farmer and a community man.
He was dedicated to his wife, Wilma, and his three sons, James, Jerry and Randy. He also worked toward the best for the community of Colfax, becoming co-owner of the Colfax Livestock Sales Co. to help keep the business afloat while also maintaining an active presence in the local American Legion post, Disabled American Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The AMVETS Post 50 in Colfax, upon opening in 2001, named their post after the famous soldier.
Always, his thoughts remained with the men and women who continued to serve in the armed forces.
In an article for the Des Moines Register, as the United States drew closer to the Gulf War, then-76 year old Pete said, “I’m as scared as the guys over there … They’re going to fight. I hope they don’t, but it’s just as sure as anything.”
Staff writer Matt Nosco may be contacted at (515) 674-3591 or at email@example.com.