Robert Maxwell, oldest Medal of Honor recipient, dies in Bend at 98

Modest auto shop teacher proud of what medal meant

Remembering Bob Maxwell 1920-2019

BEND, Ore. - (Update: Adding more details on Maxwell's heroism, honors; Walden, Clarno, Wyden, Oregon House GOP lawmakers' statements)

Robert Dale Maxwell, a longtime Bend resident and America's oldest living Medal of Honor recipient, has died at the age of 98, a close friend confirmed late Sunday night.

Maxwell passed away Saturday night, having been moved by his daughter to Partner in Care's Hospice House in Bend earlier in the day, said Lyle Hicks of the Central Oregon Band of Brothers.

Maxwell served in the Army during World War II as a communications technician and was seriously wounded in France when he threw himself on a grenade to save the lives of his nearby comrades.

Maxwell, born in Idaho, had lived a quiet life in Bend after a career spent teaching auto mechanics in Bend and Eugene, until notoriety came his way in recent years.

The plain-spoken hero, always modest about his actions in battle, took part in many veterans events and observances over the past several years, once notoriety came his way.

“I’m just a little toad in a big puddle,” Maxwell said when he turned 97 in 2017, attending a ceremony for the first signs on the newly designated Medal of Honor Memorial Highway across Oregon. "But there’s a lot of people doing a lot of good things, and we try to encourage them all that we can.”

“I’m not wearing the medal for any personal deeds," he said in one interview. "I’m wearing it because it represents all the casualties that we had in the war. It represents those that were killed defending their country and of the ideals that they believed in.” 

Maxwell was born in 1920 in Boise, Idaho, and raised in Kansas by his grandparents, leaving school after the seventh grade to work on the family farm.

After the Dust Bowl decimated the Midwest and the bank foreclosed on the family farm, they headed for Oregon, but they stopped in Colorado instead, after Maxwell's grandfather became ill.

He was drafted into the Army in Colorado in 1942, turning down an offer of conscientious objector status for being a Quaker. He served during the war in North Africa and the Allied invasion of Sicily.

In August 1944, near Besancon in eastern France,  Maxwell, while under enemy fire, risked his own life to protect the lives of others from an enemy hand grenade.

The Congressional Medal of Honor Society summarizes his actions that day in this fashion:

"On September 7, 1944, Technician 5th Grade Maxwell's battalion observation post near Besancon, France, faced an overwhelming onslaught by enemy infantry. He aggressively fought off advancing enemy elements and, by his calmness, tenacity, and fortitude, inspired his fellows to continue an unequal struggle.

"When an enemy hand grenade was thrown in the midst of his squad, Technician 5th Grade Maxwell unhesitatingly hurled himself squarely upon it, using his blanket and his unprotected body to absorb the full force of the explosion.

"This act of instantaneous heroism permanently maimed Technician 5th Grade Maxwell, but saved the lives of his comrades in arms and facilitated maintenance of vital military communications during the temporary withdrawal of the battalion's forward headquarters."

Maxwell survived his wounds and received the Medal of Honor the following year at a convalescent hospital in Denver. At the time of his presentation, he reportedly said that he hoped to return home to help take care of his grandmother and resume his education.

The Medal of Honor is the nation's highest military decoration, awarded by Congress to a member of the armed forces for gallantry and bravery in combat at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. Only about 3,500 have been awarded since the decoration's creation.

Maxwell also was the recipient of two Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and two French honors, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’honneur for his service in the 7th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division..

After the war, Maxwell settled in Oregon and used the GI Bill to enroll in vocational school in Eugene to become an auto mechanic, later serving as an apprentice at a car dealer in Redmond, where he met Beatrice, whom he married in August 1951. They were married for 64 years, until her passing in April of 2015.

Maxwell taught auto mechanics at Bend High School before helping Central Oregon Community College launch its automotive program in 1958, serving as an instructor there for eight years. He then spent 20 years teaching automotive classes at Lane Community College in Eugene before returning to Central Oregon with Beatrice and retiring in Bend in 1996.

In 2011, at age 90, Maxwell -- who got his GED after the war -- finally received his high school diploma at Bend High. He suffered a minor stroke in 2012 but continued to make public appearances and serve as director of the nonprofit Bend Heroes Foundation.

Maxwell is survived by his daughters and numerous grandchildren. Funeral services are pending.

There are 70 Medal of Honor recipients alive today, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., released the following statement Monday n the passing of Robert (Bob) Maxwell:

“Bob Maxwell represented the best of what Oregon and America have to offer. The gallantry of America’s oldest Medal of Honor recipient was well known -- throwing his unprotected body on a German hand grenade to protect his comrades in WWII earned Bob Maxwell the highest military honor, his second Silver Star, a second Purple Heart, and a Bronze Star.

"For those who had the pleasure of knowing Bob, they know that his bravery and heroism were only matched by his kindness, warmth, and sense of humor. I was honored to call Bob Maxwell a friend. Bob’s legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of everyone he interacted with and will forever be cherished in the country that he sacrificed so much to protect.

"To the entire Maxwell family: Mylene and I send our heartfelt condolences and prayers during this difficult time. To Bob Maxwell: thank you for your friendship, and for your service to the United States on my behalf and on behalf of all Americans.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., commented in a tweet: “Very sad to hear about the passing of Central Oregon’s Bob Maxwell, who earned his Congressional Medal of Honor for incredible courage in WWII. Bob was a true hero whose legacy includes bravery on the battlefield & service to students in Oregon classrooms.”

Redmond resident and Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno issued the following statement on the news of the passing of Maxwell:

“It was an honor to know Bob and count him as a friend. He was a true American hero who served his country and community valiantly. He will be greatly missed.”

"Bob Maxwell served during World War II and was awarded the Medal of Honor, Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and the French Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’honneur for his service during the war. He was a longtime Bend auto shop teacher and served as director of the Bend Heroes Foundation, helping to build veterans memorials throughout Oregon."

Oregon House Republicans also celebrated the heroism of Bob Maxwell in a statement Monday.

“Bob Maxwell was the embodiment of the American spirit, quick-thinking, selfless, and refusing to blink when everything was on the line. We were indeed blessed to have a man of such character and integrity to walk among us,” said House Republican Leader Carl Wilson (R-Grants Pass).

“Few in history showed the courage that Bob Maxwell did as a young man.  He gave of himself all his life, and central Oregon will always remember him,” said Rep. Mike McLane (R-Powell Butte).

“We lost a true American hero who earned our nation’s highest military honors.  When I met Bob Maxwell at the Bend Band of Brothers breakfast he was humble about his accomplishments and cared more about others.  He will be greatly missed,” said Rep. Jack Zika (R-Redmond). 

“It was an honor to know Bob Maxwell, a true American hero and friend of mine. He was an amazing man who loved his country and always focused on serving his community. I truly enjoyed working with him to bring the prestigious Medal of Honor curriculum to our Bend-La Pine students. He never stopped advocating, serving, and inspiring our community. He was a true hero of mine. I am praying for his family today and wishing them peace in this sad time,” said Rep. Cheri Helt (R-Bend).

Watch an interview with Maxwell here. You can read his Medal of Honor citation here.

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