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Honor and Humility 

Local WWII veteran reflects on act of courage

Robert Maxwell at Bend Senior High School.

Photos by Christian Heeb

Robert Maxwell at Bend Senior High School.

Robert "Bob" Maxwell pauses at the door of Bend Senior High School and takes off his World War II hat and stores it under the seat of his shiny red walker. Inside, large black and white drawings of Salvador Dali, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. encircle the cafeteria and in an adjacent corner, plaques and photos honoring veterans hang beside a memorial listing the names of those who never made it home. Maxwell, an honorary Bend Senior High graduate, came home in 1945 after throwing himself on a German enemy grenade in World War II.

That courageous act earned Maxwell the country's highest military award, the Medal of Honor. At 95, he is the oldest living recipient of the medal and the only residing in Oregon. A few days before his Oct. 26 birthday, Bend City Council proclaimed Oct. 21 "Bob Maxwell Medal of Honor Day."

His friends call him Bob, and he asks where to park his horse—his walker—as he and his friend Dick Tobiason—a Vietnam veteran and his manager—take seats in the principal's office. The two know their way around the office because they implemented the Character Development Program at the high school, which places veterans in the classroom.

Around Veteran's Day, Maxwell's schedule fills up quickly with assemblies, ribbon cuttings, and memorial dedications, so he likes Tobiason to manage his appointments. He has a cell phone and says that he sends Tobiason texts.

"I text," he says. "It's just a matter of punching the numbers in. I've got the old obsolete cell phone that nobody else owns anymore."

Seventy-three years ago, Maxwell was drafted by the Army during World War II and became a wireman in the Third Infantry Division. He joined his division in North Africa and later they moved into France.

"He was basically the IT guy of his infantry," Tobiason says. His job was stringing switchboards from the battalion command post to the rifle company so that the two stations could communicate with each other, explains Tobiason.

Maxwell recalls the night of September 7, 1944 when he was in Besancon, France. Armed with only a .45-caliber handgun, he says grenades were being launched at the battalion command post and one made it inside.

"In the instant that the grenade came over the fence and landed at my feet—I estimated five seconds—and there was a thought in my mind to find it and throw it back, but I realized that time was up, and there wasn't time to do that," he says. "So that's why the only alternative was to drop on it and hope to smother it before it killed somebody else."

Because his body absorbed the blast, none of his fellow soldiers were injured, and Maxwell says the next thing he remembers is waking up still inside the compound next to a bicycle.

"I remember when I came to, the bicycle's on the ground and I was all tangled up in it," he says. "Don't know how I got that way, but the grenade must have blown me right into it and got hung up in it."

Although Maxwell was still alive, he wasn't safe, and found himself left behind by men who thought him dead. But the Lieutenant was still there and helped Maxwell detach the radio from the wire—which protected the communication of the battalion command post—and the two fled on foot dodging enemy fire along the way.

Maxwell was decorated with the highest military honor in 1945. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Maxwell's Medal of Honor paperwork two days before his death, and Maxwell says President Truman was too busy with the affairs of the country to present him with the medal. So after spending around nine months of recovering in hospitals overseas and then in Colorado, a local General awarded him the medal.

After the war, Maxwell was living and working in Redmond when he met Bea.

"I met my wife in church in Redmond," he recalls. "We hit it off pretty well and we were still married 64 years later."

Maxwell says his wife told him to take a job at Central Oregon Community College as a mechanics instructor and that's where he spent the next 30 years. The couple had four daughters, and they all live in Oregon. Beatrice passed away in April.

He will be at Bend High Senior High School again for their Veteran's Day Assembly. Despite receiving the Medal of Honor 70 years ago, he says the feeling is still hard to describe.

"[I]t's not typical of my character to be on such a high pedestal and have everybody looking up to you; I'd rather be down among the people," he says. "The medal does make you feel somewhat like that, but then when you get to thinking about got rewarded for something that some people think was worthy, so [then] you go back to work."


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