JIM THIELMAN: He Was A War Hero; I Had No Idea

Earl was my best friend at church, which was across the Red River in North Dakota. He didn’t attend my Minnesota grade school and was Native American. That made him like most other kids in church, except he and I had been baptized on the same day. And his dad was a war hero. I mean a “let’s make a movie about this guy” war hero. Medics once removed 83 grenade fragments from Earl’s dad.

Earl Keeble being held by his mother (left) and me in my Mom's arms (right).
Earl Keeble being held by his mother (left) and me in my Mom’s arms (right).

I had no idea about this because neither Earl nor any adult in the Episcopal congregation had ever mentioned that Woodrow Keeble was the most decorated member of the Sioux tribe in U.S. military history. No kid would have guessed it. The “Woody” who had shared a pew was a friendly, widowed man with a positive outlook and painful scars under his suit from defending his country. Twice.

Keeble had drawn interest from the Chicago White Sox baseball team before World War II derailed the dream. Instead of a World Series ring he had a Distinguished Service Cross and four Purple Hearts — two that were awarded for service at Guadalcanal, where U.S. troops saw brutal hand-to-hand combat. He was wounded twice in World War II.

He was wounded three times in Korea. He re-enlisted after the Korean War started in 1950, telling friends, “Someone has to teach these kids how to fight.”

White House ceremony

One afternoon in 2008 I picked up an office newspaper to learn what was going on in the world. What was going on was the president had awarded the Medal of Honor to Earl’s dad. I was so stunned I read the story twice, then sat down and stared at a cloud. I had questions for Earl, but he and his dad were both gone.

The story revealed the perseverance needed to trigger that 2008 ceremony at the White House where President George W. Bush presented Woodrow Keeble’s medal to his survivors. “On behalf of our grateful nation,” Bush said, “I deeply regret that this tribute comes decades too late. The first Sioux to ever receive the Medal of Honor died without knowing it was his. A terrible injustice was done to a good man, to his family and to history. And today we’re going to try to set things right.”

Keeble’s family and friends had tried for decades to make this happen. The firm obstacle? Such paperwork must be submitted within three years of heroic action. Actually, it had been. Twice. It was said that each time the paperwork never got off the battlefield.

Family and tribal members launched a contagious effort to turn heads by gathering the same eyewitness accounts, letters and military records after Keeble died at age 64 in 1982.

The 1951 battlefield records that led to Keeble’s Medal of Honor read like a Hollywood script.

It was after midnight. Atop an imposing, rocky summit, Chinese soldiers were protecting a supply line near Sangsan-ni, North Korea, about 60 miles northeast of Seoul, South Korea. Among the heavy U.S. casualties in Keeble’s units were all the officers.

Now in charge, MSG Keeble led each of three platoons up the hill in succession. Each resulted in more U.S. casualties.

Determined to lose no more men, Keeble grabbed his Browning automatic rifle and loaded up on hand grenades and ammunition. He was no small target, standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 235 pounds. He inched his way up the nearly vertical ridge alone.

In what had to be an adrenaline-pumping three hours, the former baseball prospect flung grenades with precision toward the three fortified bunkers, in strategically brilliant order, until the risk to his men had been eliminated.

One of Keeble’s platoon members said so many enemy grenades cascaded toward Keeble “that it looked like a flock of blackbirds.” Keeble was wounded by the fragments, shot in the chest, but according to military reports refused medical treatment until his men held the position atop the cliff. It was only later that the 83 grenade fragments were removed from his body.

The pull of fear

Keeble later said he had fought off fear during his years of combat and came to understand fear well. He said he was once “quick to call coward or yellow anyone who showed fear under any circumstances. Nevermore. I am not a psychologist, nor a statistician and less of a philosopher; but … the fear impulse is stronger, more demanding than either that of love or hunger.”

Oh. If you’re curious why so many Native Americans like the Keebles landed in the Episcopal Church, that was the result of another war: the Dakota War of 1862. Or, specifically, the result of Henry Whipple going to Washington, D.C., to urge President Abraham Lincoln toward leniency for the doomed Sioux.

Whippple was Minnesota’s first Episcopal bishop in 1859. He viewed Native Americans as something many whites did not: human. He invested himself in the Dakota, to history-changing effect.

In the aftermath of the Dakota War of 1862, Whipple convinced Lincoln to spare most of the more than 300 warriors who were sentenced to hang.

It was still the largest one-day mass execution in American history when 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, Minn., at the end of 1862. But Whipple’s pleas to Lincoln saved the lives of 264 other Dakota.

More on Woodrow Keeble

Woodrow Keeble Medal of Honor citation

Eagle Feather: The Story of Woodrow Keeble (video)

First Sioux to receive Medal of Honor

Woodrow Keeble, Wikipedia

Leave a Reply