Lt. Col. Earl Madsen, unsung hero

by marlys good

The Greybull Standard has covered stories of local veterans reaching back to World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War and Afghanistan, veterans who served overseas and those who remained stateside, serving their country in whatever capacity they were asked to ensure America remained “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

In reaching out to veterans willing to share their stories with us, stories of the heroics of their grandfathers, fathers, uncles, sons, brothers, one hero remained obscured and unsung.

The late Earl A Madsen is more familiarly remembered as the one-time owner of the local Gamble store, city council and chamber of commerce member, and two-term mayor of Greybull.

Little has been written of Lt. Colonel Earl A. Madsen and the five years he served with the 5th U.S. Army, 85th Infantry Division, 337th Infantry Regiment during World War II, his courage under fire, and the medals he earned for that courage.

For some background: On June 14, 1940, the German army occupied Paris, and a swastika flag was hoisted to the top of the Eiffel tower. On June 22, France surrendered to Germany (Glimpses of Greybull’s Past).

By mid-summer, the United States government decided that its system of voluntary military enlistments wasn’t working and amid much controversy, and in order to strengthen the military as quickly as possible, the U.S. Congress passed legislation initiating conscription. All young men between the ages of 21 to 36 were ordered to register for the draft. By Oct. 16, 1940, 274 men in Greybull were registered by the Big Horn County Draft board. Among those was Earl Alfred Madsen.

In early May 1941, before any of the young men were actually drafted into the U.S. Army, Madsen, who held the rank of captain in the Army Reserve, was ordered to report for active duty for what was expected to be one year; that one year turned into almost five years.

Earl’s brother and sister-in-law from Billings came to Greybull to run the Gambles store, and Earl, wife Gladys and their three children, daughter Shirley and sons, Bob and Earl Jr., moved to Biloxi, Miss., where Capt. Madsen trained infantry troops. By 1943, right after the birth of the couple’s third son, John, Capt. Madsen shipped out to North Africa.

His division fought its way across North Africa, then was sent across the Mediterranean to invade Italy, landed south of Naples and fought its way north. Along the way Madsen was promoted to major and then to lieutenant colonel at which time he took over command of his battalion.

He received the Silver Star for ”gallantry of action on April 25, 1945.” The citation read:

“When his battalion was held up by devastating enemy mortar and small arms fire during an attack with two companies abreast on an enemy-held ridge, Lt. Colonel Madsen, battalion commander, unable to contact his leading companies by radio, fearlessly crawled forward over open terrain subjected to intense sniper fire to a position where he could survey the attack. Making a quick estimate of the situation, he continued forward until he was virtually in a position with the leading elements. Moving back and forth across the sector, directing the assault, showing contempt for enemy fire directed at him, Lt. Col. Madsen, by his aggressive leadership sparked his battalion to continue the attack and drive a fanatically resisting enemy from his positions. His fearless supervision of the attack and personal disregard for the enemy fire was an inspiration to all personnel of the battalion and reflect the highest traditions of the American infantryman.”

In May of 1945, Madsen received the Bronze Star “for Heroic achievement in action during the period 12 May to 3 June 1944, in Italy. When his battalion was engaged in an attack against well-fortified enemy positions, Lieutenant Colonel Madsen directed the employment of his troops in a well-coordinated effort to destroy the enemy positions. By his sound tactical planning and skillful leadership he enabled the battalion to inflict heavy casualties upon the hostile force, forcing them to withdraw in confusion and disorder, abandoning much of their equipment and leaving many dead upon the field of battle …”

The silver and bronze stars were followed by the Legion of Merit medal. He was cited “for his ability to command and instill in his troops the desire to close with and annihilate the enemy in the successful advance culminating in the fall of Rome.”

The citation went on to say that although he was one of the oldest men in his unit (with a jeep and driver) “he steadfastly refused to ride and walked alongside his men practically all the way from Minturno to Rome, a distance of 135 miles.”

John Madsen recalls his Dad “trying to tell us war stories and none of his kids would sit still for them. Boy, what I’d give to be able to sit down with him now and go over the whole thing, day-by-day, and who did what, and at what cost.”

John said, “My own experience in Vietnam makes me very suspicious of most medals and medal winners. But I think WWII was different. For one thing, every summer through the ‘50s and ‘60s, enlisted men from Dad’s command would swing their family vacations through Greybull, usually showing up unannounced at the store. Dad would always bring them home, spend a couple hours with them, like they were all his buddies. Then they began having annual reunions in the ‘70s and Dad was treated like a conquering hero by his gang. I can’t tell you how foreign this was to my military experience.

“One story he did tell me (I was just out of Vietnam) was about taking his weary troops to a place for a rest by a lake – it was summertime. He noticed they all just sank wherever they were and sat there. So he formed them up again and marched them down to the lakeshore; then the colonel ordered his men, by the numbers, to strip and marched them into the lake. He said at that point they all began hooting and hollering and having a good time. I told him that if he’d done that to my outfit in Vietnam, he’d probably have been shot for it.

“Very different wars, and very different cultures, only one generation apart.”

In the march across Italy, Lt. Col. Madsen picked up “a load of shrapnel, contacted malaria and ended up in a hospital just outside Pisa.”

The war ended. Madsen retired from the military, returned to Billings to pick up his wife and four children, and came back to Greybull to resume managing Gambles.

Madsen was a man to be respected and admired, not only for his service to his country, but for his involvement and contributions in the community and to local organizations, for the time spent on the city council and his leadership during his two terms a Greybull’s mayor.

He was a man who made a difference.