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thedrifter
08-13-06, 09:07 AM
Posted on Sun, Aug. 13, 2006

Saluting ‘Speedy’
Friends of Medal of Honor recipient gather at his grave
An ice cold tribute to a hero
By CHUCK CRUMBO
ccrumbo@thestate.com

With sweaty, cold brews in hand, eight men approached the grave of war hero Harold “Speedy” Wilson.

As they had done from time to time since the Medal of Honor recipient died eight years ago, the men were honoring a deathbed wish: They would have a beer with Speedy.

“OK, let’s fall in over here,” said Gene Wilbur, commandant of the Marine Corps League Detachment 1141, which bears Wilson’s name. “Anybody want to say a few words?”

“Good buddy, it’s (been) 56 years,” began Steve Illes, his voice choking with emotion. “I know that he and members of his platoon are the reason why I am here.

“Speedy, you were one big Marine.”

“Hoorah” the other men said.

“Here’s to Speedy,” said Jim Vinyard, former commandant of the detachment.

The men took a drink from their cans and bottles of beer and then poured the rest on Wilson’s grave.

“God, he’s loving this,” Vinyard said.

The ceremony, held on a sunny but steamy afternoon late last week, was especially poignant for the 75-year-old Illes, a retired Marine captain from Beaufort.

He was in Wilson’s rifle platoon, which was part of Company G, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, as it took up positions on Hill 902, just north of the 38th parallel, near the Hwachon Reservoir.

“He did things nobody ever thought a human being could do,” Illes said. “He was 10 feet tall that night.”

HE REFUSED TO LEAVE

It was April 23, 1951 — less than 24 hours after 250,000 Chinese communist troops surged across the border into North Korea to strike up their spring offensive.

South Korea’s 6th Division panicked and collapsed, said Illes, who’s writing a book about the assault. Marine units were dispatched to plug gaps along the 40-mile front.

“We moved out about noon and reached the top around 8,” Illes said. “It was a craggy peak with no grass.”

By midnight, the company outpost was overrun and Chinese troops began pouring mortar, machine gun and rifle fire on the platoon.

Wilson was so badly wounded that he couldn’t use either arm to fire his rifle. But he refused to be evacuated.

Instead, Wilson moved among his men, Illes said, shouting encouragement and directing medical treatment.

Wilson took rifles and ammunition from wounded Marines and passed them to those who could still fight.

“I saw him carry two 20-pound boxes of .30-caliber ammo in his left hand,” Illes said.

Wilson went from foxhole to foxhole directing the fight and giving first aid. An artillery round exploded nearby, knocking Wilson off his feet.

By dawn, the Marines had turned back the Chinese. Despite being weakened by a heavy loss of blood, Wilson checked on every man on his platoon.

Finally, Wilson agreed to seek medical aid, Illes said, but he refused to be carried out on a stretcher.

He walked unassisted about a half-mile to the aid station.

On April 11, 1952, Wilson was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman during a White House ceremony.

“His outstanding courage, initiative and skilled leadership in the face of overwhelming odds were contributing factors in the success of his company’s mission,” the citation said.

‘ALWAYS FAITHFUL’

A quiet, unassuming man who also fought in World War II and the Vietnam War, Wilson retired after nearly 30 years of service as a chief warrant officer with the Marines.

A native of Alabama, Wilson worked for the Veterans Administration, now known as the Department of Veterans Affairs, and lived in Lexington.

Although he was entitled to wear his medal whenever and wherever he wanted, Wilson kept it wrapped up in his shirt pocket.

Sometimes he’d show it to friends while drinking a beer at the Golden Nugget, a former bar on U.S. 378, not too far from Woodbridge Memorial Park where he’s buried.

Wilson nursed his brew from a large mug with a bicycle bell attached to the handle. Whenever he needed it filled, Vinyard said, Wilson rang the bell.

Being a war hero, Wilson seldom had to buy.

Shortly before he died of lung cancer on March 29, 1998, friends say Wilson asked his fellow Marines to remember him by visiting his grave and having a beer.

The grave is near a shady oak and is marked by a vase filled with a bouquet of red, white and blue artificial flowers. The bronze marker notes that Wilson received the nation’s highest award for heroism as well as the Purple Heart.

Two bumper stickers are on the marker. One says, “Semper Fi” — the Marine motto meaning “always faithful” — and the other says simply, “Marines.”

After they emptied their beers, Illes and the others headed to their cars, swapping tales about their friend and hero.

Illes talked about Wilson’s prowess at horseshoes.

Someone mentioned how Wilson loved to kid and play practical jokes.

More than a half-century later, the war is still difficult to talk about, Illes said.

“There are a lot of things I don’t want to go back to,” he said. “It hurts. I lost a lot of buddies.”

But visiting Speedy’s grave and sharing a beer with fellow leathernecks seemed to help.

“I was all for it,” Illes said. “I’m glad they thought about it.”

Reach Crumbo at (803) 771-8503.

Ellie