First Sioux To Be Awarded Medal Of Honor

February 25, 2008

The White House announced on Friday, that Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson Keeble will be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in a ceremony that is scheduled to be held on March 3rd at 2:30 pm. The award comes almost 6 decades after he took actions during the Korean War, that put himself own life at risk to save the lives of his fellow Soldiers.

Keeble, a full-blooded Sioux Indian, is a highly decorated Soldier, one of the most highly decorated in North Dakota history. He was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. Born in 1917 in Waubay, South Dakota, he grew up on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Reservation, which extends into the state of North Dakota. Keeble spent most of his life living in the Wahpeton, North Dakota area and attended an Indian school in the area. Keeble’s Army career began in 1942, when he enlisted in the North Dakota Army National Guard. Shortly after his enlistment, he was deployed to Guadalcanal, where he experienced some of the fiercest hand-to-hand combast of World War II, as part of Company I, 164th Infantry.

Guadalcanal seemed to be on his mind a lot,” said Russell Hawkins, Keeble’s stepson. “His fellow Soldiers said he had to fight a lot of hand-to-hand fights with the Japanese, so he saw their faces. Every now and then, he would get a far away look in his eyes, and I knew he was thinking about those men and the things he had to do. I heard stories from James Fenelon, who served with him there and he would talk about how the men of the 164th rallied around this full-blooded Sioux Indian, whose accuracy with the Browning Automatic Rifle was unparalleled,” Hawkins said. “It was said he would go in front of patrols and kill enemies before his unit would get there.”

According to Hawkins, the Sioux have a word for the kind of bravery in the face of the enemy that Keeble displayed. He said that work, wowaditaka, means ‘don’t be afraid of anything, be braver than that which scares you the most.’ According to his fellow Soldiers, who served with him, Keeble personified that word. His actions at Guadalcanal earned him the first of what would be 4 Purple Hearts and his first Bronze Star.

When the Korean War broke out, Keeble by then was an experienced Master Sergeant, who went above and beyond. While serving as the acting Platoon leader of 1st Platoon in the area of the Kumsong River in North Korea, around October 15, 1951, he voluntarily took on the additional duties of leading the 2nd and 3rd Platoons as well.

In an official statement, 1SG Kosumo “Joe” Sagami of Company G said,” All the officers of the company had received disabling wounds or were killed in action, except for one platoon leader, who assumed command of the company.”

Sagami wrote that Keeble stepped up to the plate and led all 3 platoons in successive assaults upon the Chinese, who held the hill throughout the day. 3 three charges were repulsed and the company suffered extremely heavy casualties. Trenches will full of enemy Soldiers that were fortified by pillboxes that contained machine guns and additional men. After the third assault, along with mortar and artillery support, the enemy sustained casualties in its ranks. After the third attempt, Keeble had the 3rd platoon withdraw and decided that he would attempt a solo assault

“He once told a relative that the fourth attempt, he was either going to take them out or die trying,” Hawkins said. “Woody used to tell people he was more concerned about losing his men than about losing his own life,” he added. “He pushed his own life to the limit. He wasn’t willing to put his fellow Soldiers’ lives on the line.”

Keeble crawled into an area that was 50 yeards from the ridgeline, armed with grenades and his Browning Automatic rifle. He flanked the left pillbox and eliminated it by using grenades and rifle fire. He then returned to where the 1st Platoon was holding the Company’s line of defense and then made his way to the opposite side of the ridgeline and took out the pillbox on the right side, using grenades.

Hawkins recalls wondering how a person of Keeble’s size, over 6 feet tall and 235 plus pounds, was able to sneak up on enemy fighters without being seen. He recalls asking Keeble one day how he was able to do so, and being answered by Keeble shrugging his shoulders.

“One day I was out helping him mow the lawn and I asked how he did it. I joked with him and told him those Soldiers must have been blind or old or something, because he would never be able to sneak up on a young guy like me,” Hawkins said. He then continued to mow the lawn. Suddenly he was startled when Keeble poppoed up from behind some bushes. “He could have reached out and grabbed me by the ankles, and I didn’t even know he was there!”

Keeble’s acts of bravery in Korea, didn’t come without a price. Sagami and other eyewittnesses say he was wounded on at least 5 occasions by fragementation and concussion grenades. Keeble had wounds to his chest, arms, right calf, knee, right thigh and left hip. According to his step-son, 83 grenade fragments were removed from his body, with several more remaining. According to Sagami, Keeble never complained on the battlefield and refused to be evacuated due to his injuries, until after the unit was in defensive positions for the night.

Because of his actions in Korea, every member of Company G who survived signed a letter recommending Keeble for the Medal of Honor on two different occasions. Once in November 1951 and again in December of the same year. The paperwork was lost on both instances. On December 20,1952, Keeble was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart(First Oak Leaf Cluster), the Bronze Star (First Oak Leaf Cluster) and the Silver Star because of his herric actions during his tour in Korea. He was honorably discharged from the Army on March 1, 1953.

After his discharge from the Army, Keeble continued to work hard for Soldiers and veterans, championing their causes. He attended many Veteran’s events and was a proud supporter of the Disabled American Veterans. He proudly wore his uniform for parades and was always first in line for fundraisers.

His family battled to ensure that Keeble’s Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, beginning in 1972, while Keeble and his wife, Dr. Blossom Hawkins-Keeble were still alive. The family initially thought the paperwork had been lost and had no idea that the paperwork never made it off of the battlefield and no longer existed. When they realized this, they went to the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe for assistance and began gathering statements from the men who had served beside Keeble in Korea.

They soon learned that the award of the Medal of Honor had a statue of limitations of three years from the date of the event. Since it had been much longer than that, they realized that it would literally take an act of congress to reach their goal. In 2002, the tribe involved senators and representatives from North Dakota and South Dakota. With eye wittness accounts and written evidence, as well as letters from 4 senators supporting the effort, the tribal officials then contacted the Army. The Army reviewed the evidence and agreed that Keebles actions were deserving of the Medal of Honor. On March 23, 2007, North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan introduced a bill which was co-sponsored by 3 other senators, authorizing the President to award the Medal of Honor to Keeble for his acts of valor during the Korean war. Congress passed the bill in early December 2007. Because, the award is being made posthumously, Hawkins will represent his step-father and accept the Medal of Honor on his behalf.

“We are just proud to be part of this for Woody,” Hawkins said. “He is deserving of this, for what he did in the Armed Services in defense of this country. If he was alive today, I would tell him there’s no one I respect more, and how he is everything a man should be; brave, kind and generous. I would tell him how proud I am of him and how I never realized that all this time, I was living with such greatness.”

I look forward to viewing the footage of President Bush awarding MSG Keeble’s Medal of Honor to his step-son. MSG Keeble is certainly deserving of this award and it’s great that he’s finally being recognized for his courageous acts during the Korean Conflict. Rest in peace, brave warrior. You deserve this honor, for the lives you saved, in the name of freedom. Yours, is an example that our Soldiers should strive to emulate during their own service.


3 Responses to “First Sioux To Be Awarded Medal Of Honor”

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