Many persons of Polish descent have distinguished themselves in U.S. military service, from the famed Kościuszko and Pułaski to General Krzyżanowski in the Civil War to Col. Francis Gabreski and Lt. Col. Matt Urbanowicz in World War II. But one man's heroism in World War I and beyond has largely been overlooked.
For more than two centuries the U.S. Marine Corps has promoted itself as the most elite of the service branches, always looking for "a few good men" to develop into proud, tough defenders of the nation's freedom. And very few of those men achieve the status of legend in the Marines. One of those was Marine Gunner Michael Wodarczyk.
Wodarczyk was born in Poland in 1891 and immigrated to the U.S. at age fourteen. He joined the Marines in 1912 and quickly made the rank of Gunnery Sergeant, or "Gunny." His legendary exploits started in 1915 when he fearlessly dashed into an explosives storage bunker to remove burning trash that could have set off a huge explosion on base.
When the U.S. entered World War I, Gunny Wodarczyk was sent to France. On June 10, 1918 while engaged with the Germans in the Belleau Woods, his company was in danger of being enveloped by the enemy. Sgt. Wodarczyk was quick to notice a group of Germans moving to the left. He took a few men with him and looped around behind them. Under his orders, they leapt upon the Germans, capturing fifty and saving his company and perhaps his entire battalion.
It was an extraordinary feat that earned for Wodarczyk the Croix de Guerre and Medaille Militaire from the French and the nickname "The Polish Warhorse."
That October, the Gunnery Sergeant's resilience would be tested in battle at Blanc Mont Ridge. He was severely wounded and spent months in the hospital, after which he received a disability discharge. But Wodarczyk would not accept this. He set out to rehabilitate himself and after eighteen months of hard-nosed determination he had worked himself back into shape and was accepted for reenlistment in 1920.
After two years as an aircraft mechanic, at age thirty-two Wodarczyk wanted to be commissioned as a naval aviator in the Marines, but its manpower had been drastically reduced after the war and there was no vacancy for a Marine flier. Yet there was another way.
The Marines and its parent branch, the navy, realized the future need for pilots, so they devised a way around the restrictions. They created the position of student pilot, a class which would not attend formal aviator school but receive on-the-job training. In November 1922, Gunny Wodarczyk was assigned to such a position, flew 600 hours in four years and was noted as an exceptionally qualified aviator.
In the summer of 1927, a brigade of Marines was sent to Nicaragua to keep the peace and help the government there defeat insurrectionists. One night, a group of eighty-six Marines and Nicaraguans were caught in an attack by rebels. Flying a routine patrol overhead were two biplanes, one piloted by Wodarcyk. The Polish Warhorse went into action, flying low and strafing the rebels with machine gun fire, in the first air support action of ground forces in Marine history. When he ran out of ammo, he returned to base to reload, and was joined by other planes. The enemy was routed. Wodarczyk was awarded the Nicaraguan Cross of Valor and the Distinguished Flying Cross by the U.S.
Wodarczyk also singlehandedly destroyed a rebel base from the air despite serious damage to his plane, which lost its tail. In a typical engagement, he would lead a group of planes over the enemy, continually bombing and gunning, reloading and refueling all day long.
In the recommendation for his Distinguished Flying Cross, it was stated that Wodarczyk had conducted twenty-five successful engagements in a few months and was commended for gallantry four times. Embarrassed that their best flier was still an enlisted man, the Marines promoted Wodarczyk to Warrant Officer at the same ceremony at which he received the Cross. Chief Marine Gunner Wodarczyk was given his naval aviator wings and Distinguished Flying Cross on June 18, 1928 for "extraordinary achievement in aerial flight and in recognition of his initiative, skill and courage."
The Polish Warhorse, seemingly indestructible and always awe-inspiring, was described as "hard as nails, but absolutely fair all the way...you got what you rated from him," and "everything a Marine should be." He was still on active duty during World War II, but apparently did not take part in combat. Michael Wodarczyk died on June 1, 1957. He is buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.
writtem by Martin S. Nowak
I recommend Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland's Present by Norman Davies