Master Sgt.Woodrow Wilson Keeble receives award posthumously
WASHINGTON – A Sioux warrior received overdue recognition from the president of the United States.
On March 3, Army Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson ”Woody” Keeble, who passed away nearly 26 years ago, became one of a select few to receive the Medal of Honor during an overflowing White House ceremony packed with tribal dignitaries, military leaders and proud family members. Keeble is believed to be the first Native person of full Sisseton-Wahpeton ancestry to be given the award.
While American Indians as a group have long been recognized as having an above-average commitment to serving in the American armed services, fewer than 10 individual Indians have received the Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor bestowed by the American government for action against an enemy force.
A pride-filled Russell Hawkins, Keeble’s stepson who is also of Sisseton-Wahpeton descent, was in attendance in the East Room to accept the medal from an apologetic President George W. Bush. Also in attendance were Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, as well as South Dakota Sens. Tim Johnson and John Thune, Democrat and Republican, respectively; Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D.; and former South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow, a Republican.
Bush admitted openly that the recognition of Keeble’s courageous acts during the Korean War should have been bestowed many years ago – long before Keeble’s death in 1982. However, due to a series of bureaucratic blunders, and perhaps racism, the president said the honor did not come until this year.
”On behalf of our grateful nation, I deeply regret that this tribute comes decades too late,” Bush said at the 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.”
Bush described the long time it took the military man to be recognized as a ”terrible injustice,” but added that Keeble ”believed America was the greatest nation on Earth, even when it made mistakes.”
Keeble’s family and friends explained after the ceremony that tribal members and politicians from the Dakota region had long been pushing for Keeble’s strategic military efforts during the Korean War to be properly recognized.
In October 1951, Keeble saved the lives of fellow American soldiers by fending off several Chinese enemies on a steep hill, while he himself was wounded as a result of two rifle shots to the arm and a grenade exploding near his face.
”Soldiers watched in awe as Woody single-handedly took out one machine gun nest, and then another,” Bush recalled during the ceremony. ”When Woody was through, all 16 enemy soldiers were dead, the hill was taken, and the Allies won the day.”
Keeble, who was known by his fellow soldiers as ”Chief,” first saw intense combat during World War II, for which he earned his first Bronze Star and the first of his four Purple Hearts. An athletic man, Keeble was being recruited by the Chicago White Sox before he was first called to duty. Later, with Keeble’s opportunity to play professional baseball having passed, he returned to service as a master sergeant.
”There were terrible moments that encompassed a lifetime, an endlessness, when terror was so strong in me, that I could feel idiocy replace reason,” Keeble once said of his service, according to the Army. ”Yet, I have never left my position, nor have I shirked hazardous duty. Fear did not make a coward out of me.”
Army men twice recommended that Keeble receive the Medal of Honor in the 1950s, but their applications were apparently lost by the military both times. When family members tried to renew the effort to get Keeble his award in the 1970s, they were told by Pentagon officials that the legal deadline had passed. He was instead given the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest commendation.
Later, family members renewed their attempts, but were told that it would take an act of Congress for Keeble to receive the award. After many pleas from tribal members, the four current U.S. senators from North Dakota and South Dakota introduced legislation to award Keeble the medal. President Bush ultimately signed the legislation in 2007, which paved the way for the Department of Defense to recognize Keeble’s bravery.
”Master Sgt. Keeble’s family first contacted me in 2002 and I have been fighting ever since to get him the recognition he deserves,” Johnson said in a statement. ”The Keeble family, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, and all the people of the Dakotas today have reason to celebrate and remember his service and valor.”
Kurt Bluedog, a great-nephew to Keeble, said after the ceremony that he’d like to believe that racism wasn’t involved in his uncle’s slow-to-come recognition, adding, ”I think this kind of thing happens more often than we think.”
Hawkins also discounted racism, saying that he didn’t think Keeble would have said the missing papers were a case of discrimination. ”He didn’t see racial colors,” Hawkins said. ”He didn’t see racial barriers.”
Family members now plan to display the Medal of Honor in a public place, such as a museum or the North Dakota National Guard armory. They hope it will be viewed as a symbol of pride for the Sisseton-Wahpeton people, as well as all American Indians.
Hawkins said he accepted Bush’s word that the ceremony was an attempt to ”set things right” and that his stepfather knew that he had ”done right.”
After his service in Korea, Keeble returned to North Dakota, where he worked as a counselor until suffering a series of strokes. Living in poverty in his later years, he was forced to pawn all of his military medals. He died in 1982 at age 65 and is buried in Sisseton, S.D.
During the White House ceremony, a chair decorated with an Army uniform once worn by Keeble was displayed prominently beside a chair bestowing the red shawl of his late wife, Blossom Iris Crawford-Hawkins.