By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 3, 2008 – President Bush today presented the Medal of Honor to the family of the late Army Master Sgt. Woodrow Keeble, the first full-blooded Sioux Indian to receive the nation’s highest military award, for heroism during the Korean War.
Keeble, a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, was honored during the presentation ceremony at the White House for risking his life to save his fellow soldiers during the final allied offensive in Korea.
When war broke out in Korea, Keeble was a 34-year-old master sergeant serving with the 24th Division’s 1st Platoon, Company G, 19th Infantry Regiment. He’d joined the North Dakota National Guard in 1942 and already had earned the first of his four Purple Hearts and his first Bronze Star for actions on Guadalcanal.
Keeble volunteered to go to Korea, saying that “somebody had to teach those kids how to fight,” Bush said today. “And that’s what he did,” serving as a mentor, teacher and legend to his soldiers, he said.
The division was serving in central Korea in October 1951 when it was called to take a series of mountains protecting a major enemy supply in the town of Kumsong. Operation Nomad-Polar was the last major United Nations offensive of the war.
U.S. casualties mounted as enemy soldiers barraged them, fortified by three pillboxes containing machine guns during ferocious fighting over a six-day span. Keeble’s officers had all fallen, so he continued the assault with three platoons under his leadership.
Despite extensive injuries himself, with 83 grenade fragments in his body, Keeble defied the medics and took matters into his own hands. On Oct. 20, 1951, he charged the hill solo. Armed only with grenades and his Browning automatic rifle, he shimmied across the ridge, singlehandedly eliminating one pillbox after another as he dodged a barrage of enemy fire.
“As Woody first started off, someone saw him and remarked, ‘Either he’s the bravest soldier I have ever met, or he’s crazy,’” Bush said at today’s ceremony, eliciting laughter. “When Woody was through, all 16 enemy soldiers were dead, the hill was taken, and the Allies had won the day.”
Only after Keeble had taken out all three pillboxes and killed the machine gunners did he order his troops to advance and secure the hill.
“Woody Keeble’s act of heroism saved many American lives and earned him a permanent place in his fellow soldiers’ hearts,” the president said.
His actions set an example, not just for his own soldiers, but for the ages, Bush said. “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,” he said.
Although every surviving member of his unit signed a letter at the time recommending Keeble for the Medal of Honor, the paperwork was lost twice, and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross instead. Keeble was honorably discharged from the Army in 1953, always maintaining his Army ties and championing veterans and their causes.
Keeble’s family took up the battle to upgrade his award to the Medal of Honor. Today, Russell Hawkins, Keeble’s stepson, accepted the award on his behalf, almost six decades after his gallant actions and 26 years after his death.
Bush apologized today for the long-overdue presentation of the award and thanked those who had pressed for it. “I want to thank you for carrying Woody’s banner to the Pentagon and to the halls of Congress,” he told them. “You did the right thing.”
“We are just proud to be a part of this for Woody,” Hawkins said in a statement released by the Army when the White House announced in February that Keeble would receive the award. “He is deserving of this, for what he did in the armed services in defense of this country.”
Hawkins called the presentation a victory not just for his family, who had pressed to see him honored, but also for the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe and North and South Dakota. “We are all extremely proud that Woody is finally receiving this honor,” Hawkins said. “He epitomized our cultural values of humility, compassion, bravery, strength and honor.”
(Carrie McLeRoy of the Army News Service contributed to this article.)