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Korean War hero receives posthumous Medal of Honor

WASHINGTON — Over the years, Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson Keeble told his stepson all about his time in Korea, including the hillside raid where he single-handedly took out three enemy pillboxes as gunfire and grenades rained down around him.

But he left out that tanks sent earlier had been beaten back by the same fighters, and that air support nearly napalmed his position, and that fewer support munitions were covering his path than he thought.

Russell Hawkins found out those details from his own research, after his stepfather passed away.

“He must have known about the napalm,” he said. “But Woody wasn’t with the comm guys. With the tanks and the Quad .50s (machine guns), it’s possible he didn’t know the full gravity of the situation, or just how heroic he was.”

On Monday, Keeble was awarded the nation’s highest military recognition, the Medal of Honor, for his selfless heroism that day in October 1951. President Bush presented the honor beside two empty chairs, commemorating the solider and his late wife.

“On behalf of our grateful nation, I deeply regret that this tribute comes decades too late,” Bush told the crowd. “But there are some things we can still do for him. We can tell his story. We can honor his memory.”

Hillside heroism

Even before his tour in Korea, Keeble had a record of bravery in battle. Army officials had awarded him the Bronze Star and four Purple Hearts for actions in the South Pacific during World War II, including brutal hand-to-hand combat in Guadalcanal.

In Korea, he served with Company G of the 19th Infantry Regiment, 24th Division. Army records say that on Oct. 15, 1951, Keeble was forced to take the lead of not only his platoon but two others as well, because of injuries to numerous field commanders.

After three unsuccessful attempts to take the rocky hillside from Chinese forces, Keeble planned a solo assault on the three machine gun posts which had inflicted heavy casualties on his men.

Hawkins, as a teen, heard numerous times from his stepfather how he crept up the hill, rolling into and out of trenches, flanking the first pillbox and lobbing grenades inside to kill its gunners.

Keeble was a large man – over six feet tall and 240 pounds by the time he reached Korea – but he was known amongst his fellow soldiers for his stealth as well as his strength.

Hawkins said one time he asked Keeble how a man his size could duck in and out of trenches, and make his way up the hillside to the pillboxes without immediately being spotted and shot.

“He showed me how he rolled in and out of trenches, how he moved along the ground,” he said. “I thought I understood it.”

Later that day, as Hawkins was finishing mowing the lawn, he suddenly found himself pulled from behind the mower and thrown onto the ground. Keeble had snuck behind some low bushes outside, and pounced when his stepson got close enough.

“I guess that’s how he did it,” Hawkins said.

Eyewitness accounts said enemy forces trained their fire on the 6-foot Keeble as he moved back to his platoon and back up the ridge line to the next pillbox. He was peppered him with shrapnel.

But the wounds didn’t stop him, and he successfully eliminated the other two pillboxes, allowing his company to take the hill. That night, after his unit had taken defensive positions, he agreed to be medically evacuated to treat his injuries.

Army physicians later removed 83 grenade fragments from his body. Hawkins said Keeble carried more inside until the day he died.

A long wait

Keeble received a Distinguished Service Cross in 1952 for his actions, but Army officials misplaced letters from every surviving member of his company requesting he receive the Medal of Honor.

After he died in 1982, his wife and family fought to have his record reopened and the honor granted to him. Lawmakers intervened last year, passing legislation allowing the military to reopen and re-examine the North Dakota native’s case.

Bush called Keeble a “gentle giant” and an exemplary soldier whose credit was long overdue. Hawkins said the family is now looking to put Keeble’s medal on display in a museum, to help tell his story to future generations.

Hawkins said despite numerous conversations with Keeble about his military service, he never asked him why he frequently put himself at risk ahead of his men. That answer was obvious, he said.

“It seems like every situation he came to, he acted heroically,” Hawkins said. “He was just a patriotic individual who loved his country and gave everything he could.”


Audio clips

Russell Hawkins

What is it like to finally be here?

What will you do with the Medal of Honor?

What does this mean to the Sioux Nation?

What was the fight like to get Keeble honored?

Was racism involved with the MOH paperwork being lost twice?

Kirk Bluedog

Was racism involved with the MOH paperwork being lost twice?

Additional stories

Photo gallery

Medal of Honor ceremony

Video

President Bush's MOH address

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