SANDY HOOK – “I chose PFC Atkins because I could not believe that someone could do what he did and survive to tell the tale,” said Kyle Gavlick, in explaining why he selected this particular World War II hero for his Medal of Honor presentation.
Gavlick, a resident of Fair Haven and the son of Michael and Sarah Gavlick, is a junior at MAST, the Marine Academy of Science and Technology, where every student is a member of the NJROTC.
Cmdr. Tracie M. Smith-Yeoman, USN (Ret), Senior Naval Science Instructor at MAST, annually assigns every junior student to research and give a presentation on the Medal of Honor recipient of his or her choice. No two students can present the same recipient’s story and all must provide their research and reason for their selections.
“We can learn so much from the 3,507 men and 1 woman who received the Medal – about courage, sacrifice, teamwork, and faith,” said Smith-Yeoman, “and these stories are incredible and should never be forgotten. Several years ago,” she continues, “I was lucky enough to attend a Character Development Program training held by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which was designed to help teachers develop curriculum using the Medal of Honor. It was that program that really motivated me to develop a lesson and project for the juniors. I think they go into this project really underestimating how much they are going to get out of it, and they come out of it amazed about the stories of heroism that they have never heard before. They realize that there is a human cost to war, and it’s not paid by the politicians sitting safely in their offices; the cost is paid by the service members and their families.”
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For Gavlick, the story of Thomas E. Atkins “stuck out for me. I spent an hour or so reading through the different citations on the Medal of Honor, and his story struck me because of how crazy it seemed.” The upcoming senior added “had I not done this project, I would never have heard about this hero and all that he did.”
Gavlick outlined the World War II soldier’s story of how he fought gallantly on the Villa Verde Trail, Luzon, Philippines, when he and two companions occupied a position on a ridge outside the perimeter defense established by the 1st Platoon on a high hill. Two companies of Japanese attacked with rifle and machine gun fire, grenades, TNT charges, and land mines in the early morning hours, severely wounding Atkins and killing his companions. Despite the intense fire and pain from deep wounds, the young soldier held his ground and returned heavy fire. After the attack was repulsed, he remained and continued to repel subsequent assaults rather than returning to the American lines for medical treatment. An enemy machine gun, set up within 20 yards of his position, unsuccessfully attempted to drive him off or silence his gun; despite repeated attacks over the next four hours, Pfc. Atkins remained, bearing the brunt of each assault and maintaining steady fire, killing 13 enemies. He fired 400 rounds and used three rifles before withdrawing during a lull to secure a rifle and more ammunition. He was then persuaded to remain for medical treatment; however, while waiting for medical help, he saw a Japanese within the perimeter and, seizing a nearby rifle, killed him. Minutes later, while lying on a litter, he discovered an enemy group moving up behind the platoon’s lines and, despite his wounds, sat up, delivered heavy rifle fire against the group and forced them to withdraw. His actions were major factors in enabling his comrades to maintain their lines against a numerically superior enemy force.
Gavlick also pointed out that Pvt. Atkins received a promotion to Private First Class, received his Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman on the lawn of the White House shortly after the end of the war, went back to his home in Spartanburg County, SC, then married, had five children, and resumed his life as a farmer, on land gifted him by the community. Little is known about him after his military service, and there does not appear to be any remembrances of him after his death in 1999.
Gavlick attends MAST because all his life he has wanted to become a scientist and feels attached to the ocean and the study of it, so the school seemed like the perfect fit before pursuing a degree in biology after graduation.
Like many students at MAST, Gavlick has no ambitions to pursue a career in the military, but feels the assignment to research a Medal of Honor recipient gave him an opportunity to “present somebody who has done incredibly heroic actions, and share his story with others, as well as learn about other MOH recipients through my peer’s presentations. It gave me deeper understanding of what the Medal of Honor means as well as a great appreciation for the heroes who have earned it. I learned about a man who never stopped fighting,” the student said. “His actions required a level of bravery not easy to come by. It’s hard to find people who emulate the strength he showed.” But, he added, “I would say members of our military and our first responders show the strength he did by performing their jobs every day. I think PFC Atkins is just one of many MOH recipients who have been sort of forgotten through history. Each and every one of these recipients showed an incredible amount of bravery and courage. It is a shame that we cannot hear all of their stories.”