Before rising to the rank of Army command sergeant major, young World War II Cpl. Paul B. Huff led a group of soldiers on a dangerous reconnaissance mission in Italy that would ultimately bring down the enemy targeting his company. For his bravery, he earned the Medal of Honor.
Huff’s military registration information shows he attended only one year of high school. It’s unclear what he did prior to enlisting in the Army in June 1941, but according to a 1944 article in the Ypsilanti (Michigan) Daily Press, he had earned the nickname “Killer” in his hometown thanks to his prowess for hunting squirrels.
Once in the Army, Huff decided he wanted to be a paratrooper in the relatively new airborne divisions, which became famous for their heroism during World War II. On Nov. 8, 1942, he was part of America’s first combat parachute insertion into North Africa during Operation Torch. A little more than a year later, in late January 1944, he was part of the amphibious landing in Italy that began the Battle of Anzio.
On Feb. 8, 1944, Huff and his platoon were staked out on the Anzio beachhead when Germans started shelling some members of their company from a nearby hill. Huff volunteered to lead a six-man team on a mission to figure out the enemy unit’s exact location and how many fighters it had.
The men had to traverse rolling hills to get closer to the enemy, which left them exposed. They were shot at by small-arms and machine gun fire, as well as several mortar shells that burst within yards of them. When Huff moved ahead of the rest of his men, he realized he was being shot at by three enemy machine guns and a 20-mm weapon.
The situation was extremely dangerous. Huff didn’t want his men to move any further into it, so he went on alone, continually being shot at while crossing a minefield. Eventually he made his way to within 75 yards of the closest machine gun nest. While yet another machine gun position continued to fire at him, Huff crawled to the nearby nest. He got close enough to kneel down and kill the nest’s crew while destroying their weapon.
Huff’s actions exposed him to the rest of the enemy gunners, who continued to fire on him. But in doing so, he was able to figure out how many enemy soldiers were left and where exactly they were hiding. Armed with that information, he crawled back to his patrol, led them back to safety and then passed the vital information on to his superiors.
Later that afternoon, an Allied patrol matching the enemy’s strength — including a group of men under Huff’s leadership — was sent to rout out the enemy. The Americans lost three patrol members in the fight, but they were able to oust a 125-man enemy company, killing 27 Germans and capturing 21 others.
Huff’s leadership and bravery led to a quick nomination for the Medal of Honor — the first to be awarded to a paratrooper. He chose to have it delivered to him on June 8, 1944, by Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark during a ceremony his comrades could attend while they were in Rome. A public ceremony held by President Franklin D. Roosevelt was later held in the U.S., according to a University of Tennessee Center for the Study of War and Society report.
Once Huff returned home, he went on a 38-state tour as part of an Army aerial show, where he made several parachute jumps to help raise money for war bonds. It was during one of these jumps that Huff asked his wife, Betty, to marry him, according to the 509th Parachute Infantry Association.
Huff stayed in the Army for many more years, rising to the rank of command sergeant major, the highest enlisted rank possible. As the command sergeant major of the famed 101st Airborne Division, he deployed to Vietnam in 1967 to take over the top non-commissioned officer job with the division’s 1st Brigade.
It was his last deployment before he retired with more than 30 years of service under his belt. Huff spent the rest of his life in the company of his wife and his daughter, Dawn.
Huff died Sept. 21, 1994, and is buried in his hometown of Cleveland, Tennessee, at Hillcrest Memorial Gardens. A major thoroughfare in the town is named in his honor, as is an Army Reserve center in Nashville.