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 Indian 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.”
But, 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.
'Soldiers watched in awe'
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.”
'Woody never complained'
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.