A Belated Posthumous Medal of Honor for a Sioux Warrior

In the aftermath, he had been wounded at least five different times by fragmentation and concussion grenades in the chest, arms, right calf, knee, right and left thighs.  Eighty-three fragments were later removed.  He never complained and refused medical evacuation until his men were settled into their night defensive positions. 
Born on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Indian reservation in 1917, Woodrow Wilson Keeble joined the North Dakota National Guard in 1942 while the Chicago White Sox were trying to recruit the big athlete.  He served with Company I, 164th Infantry Regiment, Americal Division, the first US Army unit on Guadalcanal. They fought side-side with the Marines; fighting that earned praise from Leatherneck commanders, one of whom (Col. Clifton B. Cates) wrote that they were "honored to serve with such a unit as yours." 

In an article about Keeble at the Army news site, fellow I Company member James Fenelon is quoted as recalling that "men of the 164th rallied around this full-blooded Sioux whose accuracy with the Browning Automatic Rifle was unparalleled." (A detailed account of Marine-Army combat on Guadalcanal can be found here.)   

34 year old 1st Sgt. Keeble volunteered for Korea as an individual augmentee from the 164th Infantry and was assigned to G Company, 2nd Battalion, 19th Infantry.  On October 20, 1951 he had taken charge of G Company after all of its officers had been killed or badly wounded during the 24th Division's participation in Operation Nomad. Its objective: push the Chinese communists off of their fortified winter line and take the city of Kumsong.  

This was a mission made more difficult by the fact that Chinese troops had taken advantage of a recent lull in the fighting to build trench-tunnel and bunker systems into the rugged mountains. This was the deadly terrain facing G Company and 1st Sgt. Keeble.  (Read more about Operation Nomad here.
)   From the account in Army.mil/news:

Fellow G Company 1st Sgt. Kosumo Sagami later wrote that Keeble led all three platoons in successive assaults upon the Chinese who held the hill throughout the day. All three charges were repulsed, and the company suffered heavy casualties. The trenches were filled with enemy soldiers, fortified by three pillboxes containing machine guns and additional men, surrounded the hill.

Following the third assault and subsequent mortar and artillery support, the enemy sustained casualties among its ranks in the open trenches. The machine gunners in the pillboxes, however, continued to direct fire on the company. Sagami said after Keeble withdrew the 3rd platoon, he decided to attempt a solo assault. [....]

Armed with grenades and his Browning Automatic Rifle, Keeble crawled to an area 50 yards from the ridgeline, flanked the left pillbox and used grenades and rifle fire to eliminate it, according to Sagami. After returning to the point where 1st Platoon held the company's first line of defense, Keeble worked his way to the opposite side of the ridgeline and took out the right pillbox with grenades.
"Then without hesitation, he lobbed a grenade into the back entrance of the middle pillbox and with additional rifle fire eliminated it," Sagami added. [....]
(Keeble's stepson Russell) Hawkins said one eyewitness told him the enemy directed its entire arsenal at Keeble during his assault: "... there were so many grenades coming down on Woody, that it looked like a flock of blackbirds." Even under heavy enemy fire, Keeble was able to complete his objective. Only after he killed the machine gunners did Keeble order his men to advance and secure the hill. 

Every surviving member of G Company recommended Keeble for the Medal of Honor, twice, but the paperwork was lost, and he was given the next highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross in 1952. Over the years, efforts continued to have that DSC upgraded. Woodrow Wilson Keeble died in North Dakota in 1982.

Finally, in December 2007, a bill signed by all North and South Dakota senators authorizing President Bush to award Keeble the Medal of Honor was passed.   Tomorrow, in a White House ceremony, Russell Hawkins will accept the Medal for his stepfather Master Sgt. Woodrow "Woody" Keeble. Among those in attendance will be some of Woody's North Dakota friends from the Circle of Nations, formerly Wahpeton Indian School, where he taught. 

The Medal of Honor will rest atop his other awards and decorations, which include the Silver Star, 3 Bronze Stars and 4 Purple Hearts.

Woodrow Keeble, a good, friendly, quiet man, as so many true heroes are, later talked about being in combat. 

"There were terrible moments that encompassed a lifetime, an endlessness, when terror was so strong in me that I could feel idiocy replace reason.  Yet I have never left my position.  Never have I shirked hazardous duty.  Fear did not make a coward out of me."  

His proud stepson has said, "Woody epitomized our cultural values of humility, compassion, bravery, strength" and "the embodiment of the Sioux word woyuonihan" or honor.

The deeds of Woodrow Keeble and all of our heroes are timeless, and they serve as an inspiration to us all as we strive to lead exemplary lives.

John B. Dwyer is a military historian.
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