Muskegon's Medal of Honor winner 'just doing his job'
Saturday, November 11, 2006
By Susan Harrison Wolffis

He came home a hero.

In 1951, U.S. Marine Cpl. Duane E. Dewey, 19, shipped out for duty in Panmunjon, Korea, certain to see battle as a machine gunner assigned to Company E, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division.

By the time the Marine from Muskegon made it home a year later, he was lucky to be alive -- but the men whose lives he saved in Company E were even more blessed.

Dewey smothered a grenade with his own body so his comrades might live.

His courage on the battlefield earned him the Medal of Honor, the highest award anyone in the American military can receive. Dewey is the only Muskegon resident to receive the award.

"I never thought I was a hero, and I still don't," Dewey says.

Today he celebrates Veterans Day, a great-grandfather who can no longer march in parades because of the severity of his war injuries.

But Dewey, who will turn 75 on Nov. 16, will wear the Medal of Honor he received from President Dwight Eisenhower and attend Veterans Day services in Hawthorne, Fla., where he and his wife, Bertha, spend their winters.

He doesn't make speeches on Veterans Day or otherwise. He doesn't like podiums or the spotlight.

Dewey's heroism is more a personal reflection on days like this.

"If I could give one piece of advice to our young people, it would be to have faith in God," he says, "and to serve our country."

n n

His own story of faith and service begins 55 years ago, the day he signed up to join the U.S. Marines. He volunteered instead of waiting to be drafted.

"I thought that's what you were supposed to do," he says.

He volunteered as a machine

gunner and shipped out for Korea on Sept. 15, 1951, on a troop ship. Two weeks later, after making it through a typhoon, the ship landed in Japan and then he was off to Korea.

His first months at war in Panmunjon, Korea, were "cold, wet and boring ... uneventful because it was winter defense."

But on the night of April 16, 1952, a battalion of 700 Chinese soldiers surrounded the 80 men in Dewey's company "and weren't going anywhere." At times the enemy was so close, he could hear the Chinese whispering to each other.

Dewey ducked into a foxhole to light a cigarette about 11 p.m. when "all hell broke loose." As the squad leader, he ran back to his position at the machine gun when a grenade blew up "off my left heel," severely injuring him.

Minutes later, Dewey smothered a second exploding grenade with his body to save the lives of his comrades.

"I was just doing my job," he says.

History tells a far more dramatic story.

n n

The fighting was ferocious the night of April 16, 1952. More than once, Dewey ran out of ammunition and under the cover of night ran to find more. On one desperate dash, he was hit by a first grenade.

"Take over the squad," he remembers shouting to his assistant gunner. "I've been hit."

A Navy corpsman -- a Marine Corps medic -- ran to assist the injured Dewey. The corpsman was straddling Dewey when a second grenade landed near Dewey's right side.

Even in the heat of battle, Dewey was a man of few words. He didn't say anything. Or panic.

"Your first impulse is to get rid of it," he says, "but I knew I couldn't get this out of reach of my own men."

Instead, he scooped up the grenade and shoved it into what he thought was his right pocket. Because it was so dark, he actually shoved it beneath him. Then he grabbed the Navy corpsman and held him on top of him to put more weight on the grenade and better suppress the explosion.

"Hit the dirt, Doc," he remembers saying. "I've got it in my hip pocket. ... Hold on ... "

Newspaper accounts report Dewey's body absorbed the entire force of the grenade. According to historian Joseph L. Schotts, who wrote "Above and Beyond," the explosion lifted Dewey a foot into the air.

He was bleeding profusely and going in and out of consciousness, but Dewey remembers saying to the stunned corpsman: "Get me the hell outta here. I don't know how much more of this I can stand."

The corpsman -- who was serving his first night on the front line -- "drug me over to a bunker."

"He said he'd be back ... and don't go anyplace," Dewey says, smiling at the absurdity of the statement.

Dewey was terribly wounded and bleeding so badly the corpsman had to stuff a T-shirt into the hole in Dewey's hip. He had injuries to his legs, hips and abdomen; later, surgeons removed shrapnel and a bullet in his stomach.

"And he said: Don't go anyplace," Dewey repeats.

It is the only lighthearted moment of the story.

"You're facing old man death right in the face," Dewey says.

n n

The night the Chinese attacked, Dewey was counting the days to the date he was supposed to be shipped home.

"I had two more weeks, and I could have gotten out. I was kinda looking forward to that," he says.

Instead, Dewey was fighting for his life, sure he was going to die. In what he thought would be his final hours, he thought only about his wife, Bertha, and the infant daughter who was born after he left for Korea, the baby he'd never met.

"I didn't pray for myself," he says softly. "I prayed to God that she'd (Bertha) find a nice husband ... that she'd find a good father for our baby."

As he speaks, for the first time in the conversation, Dewey turns to wipe away tears.

"Excuse me," he says.

It took four months for him to heal enough to come home. In his first weeks in the hospital, he received a letter from his commanding officer, saying he was being nominated for the Medal of Honor.

"Why?" Dewey asked at the time. "Why me?"

When he wrote to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Dewey, and a sister in Muskegon, and his wife now in South Haven, Dewey didn't mention smothering the grenade.

All he said was that he "got myself shot up a bit. Don't worry, Mom."

And he never brought up the Medal of Honor.

They had to read about that in the newspaper.

"I didn't think I'd done anything out of the ordinary," he insists.

Dewey's sister, Jean Sodini, who still makes her home in Muskegon, says her older brother was "just an ordinary boy ... an average, normal guy" who's never liked a lot of attention.

n n

On March 12, 1953, Dewey was summoned to the White House so President Eisenhower could present him with the Medal of Honor. His wife and baby daughter, Arline, were there, as well as his parents and sister.

Even the usually humble and unassuming Dewey couldn't avoid the headlines that day. His was the first Medal of Honor Eisenhower presented as president.

The late Charles Woodruff, a former Chronicle reporter and editor, wrote: "Today a shy Muskegon young man felt the handclasp of the President of the United States. He lowered his head as the ribboned medal of the country's highest military honor was fastened around his neck. And perhaps he felt the tug also as a nation clasped him to his heart."

When Eisenhower draped the medal around Dewey's neck, the cord twisted and turned. Rather than fumble with it, the president whispered to Dewey that he'd let his wife straighten it out.

Then after hearing the citation of honor read about Dewey's heroics, Eisenhower said for all to hear: "You must have a body of steel."

The day at the White House with the president has stayed part of the Deweys' lives. When they were there, Bertha Dewey was seven months' pregnant. When their son was born, they named him Dwight Duane Dewey -- and called him "Ike," just like the president.

The Dewey family returned home to South Haven, and later to Muskegon, to parades and ceremonies. While they were in Washington, D.C., the people of South Haven built the family a home to settle in.

Dewey wanted to be a barber, but because of his injuries, he couldn't stand for any length of time. He opened South Haven Office Machines, an office machinery repair business and drove a school bus.

He joined his local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts. In the mid-1960s, he and his wife built a little hunting cabin in Irons, near Baldwin, with the idea that one day it would be their retirement home.

One of the first things Dewey did when he moved north was join American Veterans (AMVETS) Post 1988 in Baldwin. He serves as post chaplain and is a member of the Lake County Honor Guard that presides at funerals and other military ceremonies.

When the post built a new building in 1987, the members asked if they could name it after him: the Duane E. Dewey Post.

But the post bears more than the Medal of Honor recipient's name.

The Deweys have donated some of their scrapbooks and memorabilia to the post, including a Medal of Honor flag Dewey received this summer.

Dewey was invited to a flag presentation ceremony in Washington, D.C., in August, but was unable to attend. So in September, U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Robert Dickerson traveled to Baldwin to present the flag to Dewey at a special ceremony at the post.

The flag is on display at the post "because more people can see it that way," Dewey says.

Dewey shares the flag -- and his unassuming perspective of heroism -- with everyone in his midst, whether it's on Veterans Day or an ordinary day of the week.

"When you do something like that," he says, his voice almost a whisper, "the furthest thing on your mind is medals.

"Anyone would have done what I did, given the chance."