Earlier this week, President Bush posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to a veteran of the armed forces. Now, most ceremonies for the award are somber occasions, but also honorable, as most who earn the Medal of Honor die as a result of the action that earned them the medal (there are fewer than 120 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, out of more than 3,000 awarded since its creation in the Civil War). The ceremony earlier this week was even more significant, as the recipient received his medal 26 years after his death. It is also significant because the recipient is the first full-blooded Sioux to earn the medal. The gentleman’s name is Woodrow W. Keeble, and he is a true hero. Keeble received the award for actions while serving in the Korean War. The ceremony was made even more significant, as two chairs were left vacant, one for Keeble himself, and the other for his late wife.
Keeble was born in Waubay, South Dakota on May 16, 1917. He grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, attending the Wahpeton Indian School, excelling in athletics. He was being recruited by the Chicago White Sox, when he was called up to serve in the Army in World War II. Keeble served with the North Dakota’s 164th Infantry Regiment, which faced bloody fighting in Guadalcanal while part of the Americal Division (23rd Infantry Division). Keeble’s unit was the first US Army unit to conduct offensive operations against an enemy during the war. During the battle, Keeble became experienced with the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and was quite accurate with throwing grenades (his entry on Wikipedia subtly links this to his baseball abilities). Also, according to his Wikipedia entry, Keeble’s unit received the Navy Presidential Unit Citation for their actions at Guadalcanal and that “the regiment participated in combat campaigns on the islands of Bougainville, Leyte, Cebu, and Mindanao.” In addition, the unit served on occupation duty in Japan. After the war, Keeble returned to North Dakota, married Nettie Abigail Owen-Robertson, and worked at the Wahpeton Indian School.
In 1951, the 164th Regiment was again called up for Korea, with Keeble among them. Keeble’s commander had his sergeants draw straws to see who would be sent to the front, but Keeble volunteered and, when asked why he volunteered, reportedly said, “Somebody has to teach these kids how to fight.” In Korea, Keeble was assigned to G Company, 2nd Batallion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division (Author’s Note: My grandfather was part of the 24th Division the same time in Korea as Keeble as part of the Combat Engineers). The unit was part of Operation Nomad-Polar in October 1951, and was tasked with taking hills protecting a Chinese supply depot in the town of Kumsong. It was during this action that Keeble performed his heroic deeds that earned him the Medal of Honor. Keeble was wounded on Oct. 15 and again on the 17, 18, and 20th, for which he only received one Purple Heart and a Silver Star for actions on Oct. 18. It is noted on his Wikipedia entry that a medic advised Keeble to stay behind on Oct. 20, but that Keeble refused, choosing not to allow his men to attack without him. Despite wounds that included “two rifle wounds to his left arm, a grenade to his face that almost removed his nose and a badly twisted knee” and doctors reportedly removing 83 pieces of shrapnel from his body on Oct. 19 (likely from the grenade mentioned earlier sustained on Oct. 18), Keeble joined his men and became a legend that culminated in his posthumous Medal of Honor earlier this week.
Keeble’s Medal of Honor citation reads as follows:
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 2008, has awarded in the name of Congress the Medal of Honor to:
Master Sergeant Woodrow W. Keeble
United States Army
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:
Master Sergeant Woodrow W. Keeble distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with an armed enemy near Sangsan-ni, Korea, on October 20, 1951. On that day, Master Sergeant Keeble was an acting platoon leader for the support platoon in Company G, 19th Infantry, in the attack on Hill 765, a steep and rugged position that was well defended by the enemy. Leading the support platoon, Master Sergeant Keeble saw that the attacking elements had become pinned down on the slope by heavy enemy fire from three well-fortified and strategically placed enemy positions. With complete disregard for his personal safety, Master Sergeant Keeble dashed forward and joined the pinned-down platoon. Then, hugging the ground, Master Sergeant Keeble crawled forward alone until he was in close proximity to one of the hostile machine-gun emplacements. Ignoring the heavy fire that the crew trained on him, Master Sergeant Keeble activated a grenade and threw it with great accuracy, successfully destroying 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 enemy troops were now directing their firepower against him and unleashing a shower of grenades in a frantic attempt to stop his advance, he moved forward against the third hostile emplacement, and skillfully neutralized the remaining enemy position. As his comrades moved forward to join him, Master Sergeant Keeble continued to direct accurate fire against nearby trenches, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy. Inspired by his courage, Company G successfully moved forward and seized its important objective. The extraordinary courage, selfless service, and devotion to duty displayed that day by Master Sergeant Keeble was an inspiration to all around him and reflected great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.
Keeble’s actions resulted in the submission of a recommendation for the Medal of Honor twice, but the paperwork was lost each time. Upon attempting to submit a third time, the recommendation was denied because “the 24th Division had reached its quota of Medal of Honor recipients.”
After the war, Keeble returned to Wahpeton to again work at the school. Unfortunately, he experienced a myriad of health problems. Keeble was afflicted with tuberculosis, which forced the removal of one of his lungs. The surgery caused Keeble to suffer strokes that rendered him partially paralyzed, unable to speak, and unable to work. Around that time, Keeble suffered more tragedy, as his wife Nettie died, leaving Keeble to care for their young son. Keeble would remarry, marrying Blossom Iris Crawford-Hawkins, “the first Sioux woman to complete a PhD program” in 1967. Keeble ultimately died on January 28, 1982 and was buried in Sisseton, South Dakota. Keeble was active in the Wahpeton VFW and was honored by his former employer, Wahpeton Indian School, which named their gym in his honor. In addition, Keeble’s family were issued replacement medals (Keeble was forced to sell them), which are on display at the University of North Dakota.
The campaign to properly honor Keeble did not end with his death. Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Kent Conrad (D-ND), Tim Johnson (D-SD), and John Thune (R-SD) fought hard for Keeble to be awarded the medal and drafted legislation in 2007 to waive the statute of limitations on Keeble’s case, which would allow for him to posthumously earn the medal. Keeble’s widow Blossom attempted to live long enough to receive her late husbands medal, but she died on June 3, 2007. After pressure from the Senators on Defense Secretary Gates to act on the case, Congress approved the awarding of the medal in December 2007. The White House scheduled the ceremony for March 3 and Keeble’s stepson Russel accepted the award on his father’s behalf. In addition to the Medal of Honor, Keeble earned the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts and the Combat Infantryman Badge
Master Sergeant Woodrow W. “Woody” Keeble is an American hero and should be remembered as a soldier who put his men before himself. Though it has taken decades, a great wrong has been made right, as Keeble’s family now has the medal that he earned so long ago.
Here is a video dealing with the story:
Below are photographs from the White House ceremony that are on their website dealing with the ceremony.
The following websites were used for this article:
“Woodrow W. Keeble” at Wikipedia
“Medal of Honor-Master Sergeant Woodrow W. Keeble”
President Bush Attends Medal of Honor Ceremony for Woodrow Wilson Keeble