WASHINGTON — President Bush apologized Monday that the country waited decades to honor Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson Keeble for his military valor in Korea, giving him the Medal of Honor more than 25 years after he died.
Keeble is the first full-blooded Sioux to receive the nation’s highest military award. But it came almost six decades after he saved the lives of fellow soldiers. Keeble died in 1982.
“On behalf of our grateful nation, I deeply regret that this tribute comes decades too late,” Bush said at the White House medal ceremony. “Woody will never hold this medal in his hands or wear it on his uniform. He will never hear a president thank him for his heroism. He will never stand here to see the pride of his friends and loved ones, as I see in their eyes now.”
However, Bush said, there are things the nation can still do for Keeble, even all these years later.
“We can tell his story. We can honor his memory. And we can follow his lead, by showing all those who have followed him on the battlefield the same love and generosity of spirit that Woody showed his country every day,” the president said before a somber East Room audience that included three rows of Keeble’s family members.
Fellow soldiers, family members and others have been pushing Congress and the White House for years to award Keeble the medal. They said the man known as “Chief,” a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux tribe, deserves the medal for his actions in Korea in 1951, when he saved the lives of other soldiers by taking out more than a dozen of their enemies on a steep hill, even though he himself was wounded.
“Soldiers watched in awe as Woody single-handedly took out one machine gun nest, and then another,” Bush said. “When Woody was through, all 16 enemy soldiers were dead, the hill was taken, and the Allies won the day.”
Pentagon officials had said the legal deadline had passed to award the medal to Keeble unless Congress specifically authorized it. Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; Tim Johnson, D-S.D.; and John Thune, R-S.D., introduced legislation to award Keeble the medal, and it was signed by Bush last year.
Keeble was recommended twice for the medal in the 1950s but the applications were lost both times. He instead received the Distinguished Service Cross.
“Some blamed the bureaucracy for a shameful blunder,” Bush said. “Others suspected racism — Woody was a full-blooded Sioux Indian. Whatever the reason, the first Sioux to ever receive the Medal of Honor died without knowing it was his.”
His friends felt he was cheated, Bush said, “Yet Woody never complained. See, he believed America was the greatest nation on earth — even when it made mistakes.”
Seventeen members of Keeble’s family, along with soldiers who served with him, attended the ceremony. Keeble’s stepson, Russell Hawkins, accepted the award along with Keeble’s nephew. He said after the ceremony that he does not believe it was racism that delayed the honor.
“I think it was truly lost,” he said of the original recommendations. “I don’t think Woodrow would say it was discrimination. He didn’t see racial colors, he didn’t see racial barriers.”
Hawkins said the family has been pushing for the medal since the early 1970s.
Keeble, who was born in Waubay, S.D., moved to North Dakota as a child. He was also a veteran of World War II and received more than 30 citations, including four Purple Hearts.
Bush saluted Keeble for his military heroism, but also for his conduct in his personal life — pursuing a woman he loved, becoming “an everyday hero” in his community and maintaining cheerfulness — despite his own grief and physical suffering. The wounds he suffered in Korea would “haunt him the rest of his life” and strokes paralyzed his right side and took away his ability to speak, but he mowed lawns and gave money to down-and-out strangers.
“Those who knew Woody can tell countless stories like this — one of a great soldier who became a Good Samaritan,” the president said.
Both Conrad and Dorgan attended the ceremony.
“This day is long overdue,” said Conrad. “Master Sgt. Keeble is finally getting the public recognition he deserves for his loyalty, devotion and sacrifice for our country.”
Dorgan said Keeble is worthy of the nation’s highest military honor.
“His bravery on the battlefield saved a lot of American lives, and today’s ceremony finally brought him the recognition he deserves,” Dorgan said. “That should be a source of pride for his family, the state of North Dakota, and all American Indians.”
North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven also traveled to Washington to attend. He noted Keeble’s service with the North Dakota National Guard.
“This is a great day for North Dakota, a great day for the Sioux nation, and a great day for the North Dakota National Guard,” Hoeven said.
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.