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thedrifter
02-02-06, 06:41 PM
Keeble's war exploits were the stuff of legend
By Mary Nelson, Daily News
BY MARY NELSON € DAILY NEWS

Gordon Thiel and Wendell Langendorfer, both of Wahpeton, started working a few years ago to give Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson Keeble some long overdue recognition.

Keeble's war exploits were the stuff of legend. This Wahpeton man was credited with taking down three enemy machine-gun emplacements with grenades and two trenches filled with enemy riflemen, all while being injured himself. His fellow soldiers twice recommended him for the Medal of Honor, but both times the paperwork was lost.

Keeble is North Dakota's most decorated soldier, having received five Purple Hearts for wounds, two Bronze Stars, one with the “V” for valor, a Silver Star (third highest award for heroism), a Combat Infantryman's Badge, and a Distinguished Service Cross (second highest award for heroism). He fought in two wars, World War II and at Korea.

Thiel and Langendorfer are going to the people to present Keeble's case posthumously. He died in 1982, in part due to complications from his war injuries. Thiel also served in Korea as a Marine during the same time Keeble was in the Army. Several key witnesses to Keeble's heroism agreed to travel to Fargo this month to be interviewed on film. It's hoped this will bolster efforts to award the Medal of Honor. The South Dakota Legislature even passed a resolution to recommend Keeble for the Medal of Honor.

Keeble was a Lakota Sioux who grew up in Wahpeton and attended the Indian School (now Circle of Nations).

“He went to the Indian School and was quite young when he came here,” Langendorfer said.

Keeble's parents were poor and after his mother died his father, Isaac, enrolled Keeble in the Wahpeton Indian School so he would get three good meals a day.

What stands out most for Langendorfer are the memories of Keeble playing baseball. He called Keeble a gifted athlete. “He was quite a ball player. I watched him pitch a lot,” Langendorfer said.

Keeble played for the Breckenridge Wahpeton Twins that were part of a league in the Valley, he said. They played communities like Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Alexandria in Minnesota, and Keeble pitched for the local team.

He was being recruited by the White Sox when he was called into action for World War II.

Keeble served with “I” Company of the North Dakota Army National Guard's famed 164th Infantry. His unit was with the division that landed on Guadalcanal in 1942 to help Marines suffering from heavy losses. He reportedly was an expert with a Browning automatic rifle.

Keeble was in combat throughout the South Pacific until the war ended.

After World War II Keeble married Nettie Owens. The couple made the school their home and had one son, Earl.

“She worked in the school laundry and they lived at the school,” Sam Hill of Wahpeton said.

Hill's older brother went to school with Keeble. Hill also attended the Wahpeton Indian School and was there when Keeble worked on campus, but didn't get to know him until later.

“I got to know Woody in 1947 when I got out of the military service,” Hill said. He also remembers watching Keeble play ball. “That was the only entertainment around here on a Sunday,” Hill said. Keeble played until the team disbanded in about 1950, Hill said.

During the Korean War, Keeble re-enlisted in the army and told a friend, “Someone has to teach those kids how to fight.” Attached to the 19th Infantry Regiment of the 24th Division, he was near Kumsong, North Korea, when Operation Nomad began on Oct. 13, 1951.

The following account comes from materials compiled and submitted with the recommendation that Keeble be awarded the Medal of Honor.

Keeble was with the 1st platoon of George Company when it joined the fray on the Oct. 15, 1951. According to records, he was wounded that day, treated and returned to action. On the 17th, he was hit again, treated and again returned to action. On the 18th, his actions earned him a Silver Star. But, his actions on this date - Oct. 20 - went far beyond the call of duty.

Keeble and his men were in a support position behind the 2nd platoon, pinned down by three nests of machine guns and two trenches of riflemen. Keeble left his own platoon and crawled to the one pinned down by enemy fire. Minutes later, soldiers saw him heading up the mountain on his own. The official record reads: “... hugging the ground, he crawled forward alone until he was in close proximity to one of the hostile machine-gun emplacements. Ignoring the vicious stream of fire, which the enemy crew trained on him, he activated a grenade and, throwing it with great accuracy, successfully destroyed 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 hostile troops were now directing their entire firepower against him, and unleashing a shower of grenades in a fanatic attempt to stop his advance, he moved forward against the third hostile emplacement.”

Keeble was stunned by an enemy concussion grenade, hesitated only long enough to regain his senses, then renewed his assault and neutralized the remaining enemy position with “exceptionally accurate rifle fire.” As his comrades moved forward to join him, he continued to direct deadly accurate fire against nearby enemy trenches, inflicting heavy casualties. Inspired by his courageous example, American troops swept forward and secured the hill.

When the 2nd platoon reached the top, they found Keeble had taken out nine enemy machine-gunners and seven riflemen. 1st Sgt Joe Sagami wrote, “As often seen in movies but seldom seen on the actual place of combat, Sgt. Keeble refused evacuation (even though he) had fragmentation wounds in his chest, both arms, left thigh, right calf, knee and right thigh.”

Overall, casualties were extremely high during this operation, and with no replacements available, the Army returned Keeble to duty within the week. Sagami said his wounds were bleeding through his bandages, he was badly limping and he was so weak he could hardly raise his weapon.

Master Sgt. Keeble's fellow soldiers twice recommended him for the Medal of Honor for what he did that day, but both times the paperwork was lost. Although a Distinguished Service Cross was eventually awarded, many are working to have it overturned in favor of the Medal of Honor he so richly deserves.

After his time in the service Keeble moved back to Wahpeton and resumed work at the school.

Later Hill said Keeble became sick and had surgery on his lung. Hill wasn't positive, but believes the surgery was a result of injuries suffered during the war. He eventually lost his voice and had to write down what he wanted to say. “That's how we communicated,” Hill said.

Hill said he married a second time and his wife convinced him to move to South Dakota.

“He was proud when the Silver Star was awarded,” Hill said. He had it on to show Hill when they met with others for a celebration.

Although he didn't talk much about his time in combat, Hill said others spoke of the heroism.

The soldiers from Guadalcanal that visited would talk about him, Hill said. “He wouldn't talk, but they would go on about what a soldier he was,” Hill said.

Three or four years ago Thiel petitioned to have Keeble entered into the North Dakota Hall of Fame. He acquired 3,500 signatures, Thiel said. He credits political party bias in preventing Keeble's nomination from getting through.

“If he gets this Congressional Medal of Honor I don't think we should have a problem getting him into the North Dakota Hall of Fame,” Thiel said.

Keeble often came to the Wahpeton Vet's Club to visit and attend events held there, Langendorfer said.

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Ellie