Valor Friday

| November 25, 2022

Captain Maurice Britt

This week’s subject comes by way of a request. Maurice Britt was a professional football player (Detroit Lions), lieutenant governor of Arkansas, and a recipient of all four of the country’s highest awards for combat bravery.

Born in Lonoke County, Arkansas in 1919, Maurice graduated as valedictorian from Lonoke High School in 1937. From there he went to the University of Arkansas Fayetteville on an athletic scholarship, playing football and basketball. He’d acquired the nickname “Footsie” after winning a pair of shoes at a local fair as a teen.

While at Fayetteville, the 6-foot-4 Britt participated in the US Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. On his graduation in June 1941 he was commissioned a lieutenant of infantry in the Army Reserve. Now you’ll recall that 1941 was an eventful year for the reserve components. They had virtually all (Guard and Reserve) been activated in February of that year, ostensibly for a year of training. The Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December would greatly extend that one year.

After graduating college, Britt was selected by the Detroit Lions of the National Football League. He played with the team for the 1941 football season. When Pearl Harbor plunged the US fully into the already raging World War II, Britt was called to active duty. He received a partial deferment so he could finish the 1941 season with the Lions, but was then sent to the 3rd Infantry Division upon his activation.

The NFL reports on Britt’s pro ball career thusly;

Britt, though, made only a small ripple in his rookie season with the Lions. He caught just one pass in nine games, a 45-yard touchdown reception that helped the Lions beat the Philadelphia Eagles, one of just four Lions wins that season. Byron “Whizzer” White, the future associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, was the star of that team. He had led the league in rushing his first two seasons in the NFL, and he used the money he made to pay his tuition at Yale Law School.

According to a description of the Eagles game from a May 2008 article about Britt in Army magazine, on the play before Britt’s touchdown, White had caught a 12-yard pass from a young equipment manager turned fullback, Steve Belichick. Belichick would go on to have a distinguished football scouting and coaching career, and his only child, Bill, has won six Super Bowls as the coach of the New England Patriots.

None of the three men would ever play again in the NFL after that victory over Chicago ended the 1941 season. The country was a week away from the attack on Pearl Harbor, which would draw the United States into World War II, and all three would go to war. White was a Navy intelligence officer. Belichick was a Navy armed guard officer with an amphibious task force in the Pacific.

Britt was an officer in the 30th Infantry Regiment part of the 3rd Infantry Division (3rd ID). The 30th Infantry carried a lineage dating back to the War of 1812. During the First World War, the 30th Infantry was part of the 3rd ID when they earned the nickname “Rock of the Marne.”

The division, including the 30th Infantry, held back a massive German attack at Château-Thierry, France, keeping the Germans from crossing the Marne River. The division’s commanding general Major General Joseph T. Dickman famously cried out “Nous Resterons La” (We Shall Remain Here) as his men refused to retreat while all the other Allied units around them withdrew.

During World War II the 3rd ID continued with their legacy of incredible battlefield bravery, of which Britt played an impressive role. Audie Murphy, often billed as the most decorated American foot soldier of the war, was also a member of the 3rd ID. A German Shepard-Husky-Collie mix named Chips was with the division too. The valiant pup earned himself a Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart. I previously talked about him here. In total, the division saw more than 530 days of combat during the war.

With the entry of the US into the war, many units that were on active duty were immediately moved to various coastal defense positions, fearing a Japanese invasion. The 3rd ID was initially assigned to defend the West Coast.

Soon though, the 3rd ID would be sent to England. From there, they were some of the first American ground units to engage in combat when they landed in Morocco during Operation Torch on 8 November 1942.

Britt was a platoon leader in Company L of the 3rd Battalion, 30th Infantry when they came ashore. From their beachhead at Casablanca, by 11 November, Armistice Day, they had secured the whole city. The division helped to capture half of French Morocco. They then remained there for a few months, missing the Tunisian Campaign.

January 1943 saw Morocco host President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill at the Casablanca Conference. This was the Allied conference that specified the demand for unconditional surrender of the Axis as the terms for peace. During the conference, the men of 3rd Battalion, 30th Infantry provided security for the heads of state in attendance. Britt was leading a platoon in that battalion.

In February 1943 famed Major General Lucian Truscott took command of the division. He instituted a strict training regime, to prepare the men for the Italian Campaign. Truscott would later earn the Distinguished Service Cross during that campaign.

To get ready for another amphibious invasion (of Sicily and then mainland Italy), the division underwent significant training. Part of this the men called the “Truscott Trot”, in which the general required all of his men to make a five mile march in an hour and then a four mile march in an hour thereafter.

On 10 July 1943 the division again made an amphibious assault, this time into Italy on the island of Sicily. Truscott’s training paid off. The men of the 3rd ID conducted the longest combat foot march in modern military history. The 3rd Battalion marched 54 miles in only 33 hours. The division as a whole logged 90 miles inside three days. From the beaches to Palermo, they even beat the tanks of the 2nd Armored Division to the city, capturing Messina along the way.

Operation Husky, the code name for the Allied Invasion of Sicily, was over by the middle of August. Which provided the men of the 3rd ID just enough time to get a brief respite, absorb replacements, and then turn their attention towards the Italian peninsula.

Britt and his men once again were in boats to land on a contested beach. This would be his third such assault of the war. They landed at Salerno on 19 September 1943. When his company commander was wounded and evacuated, Britt took command of Company L.

Britt led his men in the assault on Acerno on 22 September. Acerno is about 10 miles north of Salerno. After the Allies bombed the village, five German soldiers snuck into the town’s abbey and stole fruit from the trees. The priest shot and killed all five with some remarkably accurate rifle fire. The Nazis shelled the church in retaliation. While the priest survived, his niece died in the barrage.

During the 3rd ID’s assault on Acerno, Britt led from the front. As the campaign led them to Acerno, he helped to take out a machine gun nest. They then took part in the fiercest fighting yet in the theater.

Moving north, the 3rd ID fought across the Volturno River, then in the Battle of Monte Cassino, and finally getting stopped at the Winter Line. The line was so named by the Allies because it was where the advance up the Italian peninsula was halted for the winter. It was but one of several lines across Italy that the Germans had constructed. They had called it the Gustav Line.

Each line the Germans made in Italy was a series of well designed defensive fortifications supported by carefully dialed in artillery. This included the famed 88mm flak guns. Designed to shoot down aircraft, the Eighty-Eight was made in large quantities during the war and was used very effectively as an anti-personnel and even anti-tank weapon deployed with infantry units.

Also reinforcing the Winter Line were the massive German railway artillery guns. The Krupp K5 “Slim Bertha” was a 89 foot long, 240 ton gun with a barrel more than 83 feet in length. It shot a 536 pound shell at more than 3,600 feet per second and had an effective range of nearly 40 miles. An American veteran of the Winter Line once told me that it sounded like a railcar flying overhead.

Britt would receive his first combat bravery decoration for action during this time period. He was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action on 29 October 1943. He received a Bronze Star Medal w/ “V” for valor during the same time frame. Just days later, on 10 November, he would receive an even higher honor. He was also wounded, receiving his first of four Purple Hearts.

Having been in combat for more than a year, Britt and a handful of his men were faced with a German counterattack numbering about 100 enemy troops near Mignano on the morning of 10 November. Taking heavy enemy fire from grenades, machine guns, and small arms, Britt refused to retreat. Inspiring his men with his determination, they held the line.

Britt was wounded several times in the fighting. His canteen was shot, his field glasses shattered, he’d been shot in his side, and he had grenade shrapnel peppering his body along his face, chest, and hands. Refusing medical attention until directly ordered by his battalion commander, Britt stayed in the battle.

One of his soldiers testified, “We thought we’d be overrun. Always, I saw Lt. Britt out in front. He was a one-man army.” Another said, “He ran from side to side of our machine gun position, firing at every sight of Germans. I saw Lt. Britt, having run out of ammo, picking up hand grenades, disregarding enemy gunfire around him.”

One man said, “His canteen was pierced with bullet holes. His shirt was covered with blood and water. I asked him if he wanted to go to the field hospital. He replied, ‘No, I have to stay on this hill and help these boys.'”

During the fighting, Britt personally killed at least five Germans. He took out an enemy machine gun position, fired dozens of rifle and pistol rounds, and lobbed at least 32 fragmentation grenades. Britt’s leadership and determination led to the capture of four Germans (two of which were wounded) and secured the escape of several American prisoners.

Britt would receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest honor, for his bravery in action that day. His holding the line, greatly outnumbered as they were, kept his battalion from being isolated and the rest of his company from being destroyed.

Britt was also meritoriously promoted to captain and would receive the British Military Cross (at the time the second highest award for combat valor by officers ranked captain and lower, behind only the Victoria Cross) and the Italian Military Medal of Valor.

In mid-November the division was relieved and pulled from the line for rest and replenishment. They remained out of action through December, but were again called to conduct an amphibious landing. On 22 January 1944 the division would make their fourth assault from the sea, this time at Anzio.

The fighting at Anzio was intense. Lasting nearly six months, the battle would claim tens of thousands of men on both sides. The 3rd ID would remain, desperately clinging to the beach as the Germans not only held them off, but pushed them nearly off the land, for four months.

On 23 January, Britt did jumping jacks in the open to draw the fire of an enemy machine gun position so that his men could target and eliminate it. It was henceforth known as “Britt’s Junction” to the Americans. The next day, Britt seemed to be literally everywhere all at once.

With his company pinned down, Britt moved across the open, to an exposed position just 75 yards away from the enemy. From there he directed mortar and artillery fire. When a German tank took him directly under fire, he called in accurate fire from an American tank destroyer, forcing the enemy Panzer to retreat.

Britt then got up and raced across the open. He ran to a house and set up a machine gun within. Helping to set up the crew served weapon, he then fired it on the enemy until none were left visible. He killed or caused all of the Germans to retreat.

He then called in more mortar and tank destroyer fire. The accuracy with which he directed the supporting fire led to the destruction of three enemy machine guns, two personnel carriers, and several mortar positions. Finally, Britt personally led his men in the final charge.

Britt received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for bravery under fire, for that day. He was also seriously wounded in the fighting. He lost his right arm at the elbow when a German tank shell exploded into the house he and some other soldiers were taking refuge in. He also broke his leg and three toes.

Losing a limb meant that the war was over for Britt. He was evacuated to a hospital in Atlanta. While recovering, the young officer participated in a war bond tour. He was honorably discharged in December 1944.

Britt had become the first recipient of the top four valor awards of the US Army (MoH, DSC, Silver Star, and Bronze Star w/ “V”).

The 3rd ID would continue to fight in Italy, then southern France, and across central Europe until the war’s end. During the breakout from the Anzio beaches, on 23 May 1944, the division suffered 995 men killed or wounded. This was the most of any American division on a single day during the war.

The fight for Anzio was vicious. Audie Murphy wrote this poem in 1948 about the brutality of the battle;

Oh, gather ’round me, comrades; and
listen while I speak
Of a war, a war, a war where hell is
six feet deep.
Along the shore, the cannons roar. Oh
how can a soldier sleep?
The going’s slow on Anzio. And hell is
six feet deep.

Praise be to God for this captured sod that
rich with blood does seep.
With yours and mine, like butchered
swine’s; and hell is six feet deep.
That death awaits there’s no debate;
no triumph will we reap.
The crosses grow on Anzio, where hell is
six feet deep.

In a 1993 interview, Britt described his experiences in combat. “War is not as heroic as we sometimes try to make it. It’s mostly filth and sorrow and grime and all the bad things and very little of the good things.”

After his discharge, Britt briefly attended law school but dropped out to go into the business world. He spent the next 20 years working at a furniture manufacturer before being elected to the lieutenant governorship of Arkansas in 1966.

A lifelong Republican in a heavily Democratic state, Britt was defeated in the election of 1970. He was subsequently chosen by President Nixon to be a district director for the Small Business Administration. He was with the SBA until 1985.

Footsie then ran for governor in Arkansas, losing in the primaries. He remained active in civic groups until he died in 1995 from a heart attack at age 76. He laid in state at the Arkansas capitol, one of only two lieutenant governors ever afforded that honor.

Britt had married with his wife Patricia dying in 1993. They had three daughters and two sons. At the time of his death he had 12 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. One of his daughters, Nancy, has sadly also passed. She died in 2013 and was also a captain in the US Army, having been a military nurse. It looks as though his other children are still alive.

Despite being in constant pain from his war wounds, Britt said he had no regrets. “Under the circumstances, and looking back on it and what happened and what has happened since, I have no regrets, because I did serve my country,” He said. “I did my duty. And losing an arm was a very small price to pay. I feel like I was one of the lucky ones. The real heroes of war are the ones that didn’t come back. They’re the ones that paid the supreme sacrifice. I’ve had a good life. And I’ve said this many times: My country has been good to me. My state has been good to me. I’ve had a good life, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”


Category: Army, Distinguished Service Cross, Historical, Medal of Honor, Valor, We Remember

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Salute, CPT Britt.

Rest In Peace, Sir.

Never Forget.

Old tanker

It is amazing that he survived at all. That is a hell of a tale of guts and determination. May he rest in peace.


Thanks, Mason.


Ditto! Thanks, Mason.


He & Audie Murphy were separated from embarking on the same ship as there wasn’t enough room for both sets of their balls🫡


I had the honor of serving in Scouts with an Anzio vet, a comm Sgt & code talker (not Navajo – one of the Eastern tribes, tho’ many folks don’t realize there were other code talkers out there).
All those men sacrificed.


Hardcore! A Warrior’s Warrior! “…led from the front…throwing grenades…refused to be taken to the hospital…”

BZ Good Sir! That such men lived!

Thanks Mason


It’s a shame that this fine warrior had to share the state with the Clintons.


The best Leaders do so from the front.

The Good Captain is an example of how it’s done!

Thank you, Dear Sir. Rest Easy.