March 4th, 2008

Sioux Soldier Awarded Medal of Honor

On March 3, 2008, 57 years after extraordinary acts of heroism in the Korean War, M. Sgt. Woodrow Wilson (“Woody”) Keeble, was awarded the Medal of Honor. Keeble was a full-blooded Sioux, the first to be so honored. Keeble, who passed away in 1982, was twice recommended for the nation’s highest honor decades ago, but the nomination papers were lost. Through a special act of Congress, he was finally honored.

This is a story worth telling. A much-decorated veteran of the War in the Pacific, Keeble fought at Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and in the Philippines. When he volunteered to fight again in Korea, he told officers: ““Somebody has to teach these kids how to fight.”

Keeble, known as “Chief” to his fellow soldiers, was immensely strong and athletic. He was recruited by the Chicago White Sox as a baseball pitcher, but the war came along. Nearly a head taller than most of his fellow soldiers, he was an expert with the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). His other great weapon was his pitching arm–he could toss grenades like baseballs. James Fenelon, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North & South Dakota who fought with Keeble on Guadalcanal, once remarked that “The safest place to be was right next to Woody.”

In Korea — Taking a Hill Single-Handed
The events leading to Keeble’s Medal of Honor took place from October 15-20, 1951. Attached to the 19th Infantry Regiment of the 24th Div., Keeble’s unit had to take a series of hills protecting an enemy supply depot in Kumsong.

Official records confirm Keeble was initially wounded on October 15, and then again on October 17, 18 and 20. For his bravery on the 18th he was awarded a Silver Star. His heroism on the 20th made Keeble a legend and earned him the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor.

Keeble’s company was in its sixth day of round-the-clock fighting. They were facing entrenched Chinese soldiers on Hill 675-770, the last remaining mountain between UN forces and Kumsong. Keeble had already sustained two rifle wounds to his left arm, a face wound, and 83 pieces of shrapnel from a concussion grenade. On the 20th, Medic Dale Selby told Keeble to stay back because of his wounds, but Keeble refused to let his men go up the mountain without him.

On October 20th, replacing officers who had fallen in combat, Keeble was serving as an acting platoon leader with an infantry company. On that date Sergeant Keeble’s company was moving forward in an attack against Chinese forces on a hilltop. Leading the support platoon, Sergeant Keeble suddenly saw that the attacking elements had become pinned down on the precipitous slope by a murderous volume of fire of machine-gun positions from three well-fortified and carefully placed enemy positions.

With complete disregard for his personal safety, he dashed forward and joined the pinned-down platoon. Then, hugging the ground, he crawled forward alone until he was in close proximity to one of the hostile machine-gun emplacements. Ignoring the stream of fire which the enemy crew trained on him, he activated a grenade and, throwing it with great accuracy, successfully destroyed the position.

Continuing his one-man assault, he moved to the second enemy position and destroyed it with another grenade. Despite the fact that the hostile troops were now directing their entire firepower against him and unleashing a shower of grenades in a fanatic attempt to stop his advance, he moved forward against the third hostile emplacement. Stunned by an enemy concussion grenade, he hesitated only long enough to regain his senses, then renewed his assault and skillful neutralized the remaining enemy position with exceptionally accurate rifle fire.

Single-handedly, Keeble destroyed three enemy machine-gun bunkers and killed an additional seven enemy soldiers in nearby trenches.

Later in life, Keeble fell on hard times and was forced to pawn his medals. Keeble’s family was presented with a duplicate set of medals in May 2006, and they, along with his uniform and other memorabilia, are housed at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

Medal of Honor Ceremony
At the March 3rd, 2008 ceremony honoring Woody Keeble at the White House, President Bush recounted: “Woody Keeble’s act of heroism saved many American lives, and earned him a permanent place in his fellow soldiers’ hearts. Years later, some of those tough soldiers’ eyes would fill with tears when they saw Woody again. One said: ‘He was the most respected person I ever knew in my life.’ Another said: ‘I would have followed him anywhere.’

… On behalf of our grateful nation, I deeply regret that this tribute comes decades too late. Woody will never hold this Medal in his hands or wear it on his uniform. He will never hear a President thank him for his heroism. He will never stand here to see the pride of his friends and loved ones, as I see in their eyes now. But there are some things we can still do for him. We can tell his story. We can honor his memory.

At the request of the Keeble family and in accordance with the Sioux tradition, two empty chairs have been placed on this stage to represent Woody and [his wife] Blossom and to acknowledge their passing into the spiritual world. The Sioux have a saying: ‘The life of a man is a circle.’ Well, today, we complete Woody Keeble’s circle — from an example to his men to an example for the ages. And if we honor his life and take lessons from his good and noble service, then Master Sergeant Woody Keeble will serve his country once again.”

CLICK HERE for full transcript of Medal of Honor Ceremony

CLICK HERE to view MSNBC Video on Woody Keeble

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