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Legacy of a legend

It took 57 years, hundreds of letters, scores of petition signatures and an act of Congress, but finally Woody Keeble has a headstone worthy of his contributions as a warrior for his country.

New headstone

It took 57 years, hundreds of letters, scores of petition signatures and an act of Congress, but finally Woody Keeble has a headstone worthy of his contributions as a warrior for his country.

The moment came Saturday, as U.S. flags rippled in the wind, and following the plaintive strains of a bagpipe playing "Amazing Grace."

A blanket draping a white marble headstone was lifted to reveal carved letters embossed in gold that spelled out the name Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson Keeble and listed some of the medals he won while serving in two wars for his country, World War II and the Korean War.

One of those medals - the Congressional Medal of Honor - had only recently been awarded, to members of Keeble's family, decades after recommendations from his fellow soldiers in the Korean War had been lost somewhere in the chain of command. Twice.

When family members and supporters made a third try, officials told them it was too late.


The recognition came too late for Keeble, who died in 1982 at the age of 65, silenced by seven strokes that hobbled his once-powerful body but never his indomitable spirit.

"We're very pleased," his stepson, Russell Hawkins, said before Saturday's ceremony. "We're just overjoyed with the support. Woody was not bitter. We're not bitter."

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., called Keeble a true American hero, a man who should stand as an inspiration to all.

"Those of us gathered here today, do so out of profound and continued respect for the outstanding service of Woodrow Wilson Keeble," said Conrad, one of the four Senate sponsors from both North Dakota and South Dakota who had pushed the legislation to posthumously bestow the Medal of Honor for Keeble's heroic actions.

"We were able to be on hand to see a longstanding wrong made right," Conrad said, recalling the medal presentation at the White House in March.

Saturday's headstone unveiling ceremony was hosted by Keeble's Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota tribe, whose Lake Traverse Indian Reservation lies mostly in South Dakota, with a tip extending into North Dakota.

Both states claim Keebler as a valiant son. He was born and died in Sisseton but attended school and spent much of his adult life in Wahpeton, N.D. He served with the North Dakota National Guard's 164th Infantry at Guadalcanal during World War II, where he saw days of hand-to-hand combat and developed a reputation as a sharpshooter with his Browning automatic rifle.

At age 34, Keeble enlisted to serve once again, in Korea. Well-wishers on hand for the unveiling included some of the surviving soldiers from the Army's 19th Infantry Regiment, 24th Division, who had served with him in Korea.


A few of them, now men in their 70s and 80s, gathered Friday night at the American Legion in Fargo to honor the man they called, with respect and admiration, the Chief.

It was in Korea, in the closing days of the war in October 1951, that Keeble performed with heroism what those on hand Saturday said was truly legendary.

His unit made three assaults on a heavily defended hill, where Chinese troops were heavily dug in on steep, rocky terrain.

Each time, the U.S. soldiers were turned back in fierce fighting. Keeble sustained multiple wounds, including 83 pieces of shrapnel, a badly twisted knee, and a grenade blast that had nearly removed his nose.

Yet Keeble refused to leave his fellow soldiers and insisted on staying in the fight. On Oct. 20, 1951, he would make a fourth assault on Hill 663. Alone.

A one-man platoon

When Master Sgt. Woody Keeble joined the 19th Infantry Regiment's 1st Platoon, his fellow soldiers in rifle company "G" had only heard that he had served in the National Guard. They had no idea that he'd been awarded a Silver Star before he even set foot on Korean soil.

But they quickly learned that Keeble was a one-man platoon. Once a gifted baseball player, he could lob a grenade with deadly accuracy. And the sharp eye and stealth he'd honed hunting deer enabled him to pick off enemy soldiers who never saw him coming.


Joe O'Connel, now of suburban Philadelphia, was in a heavy-machine gun company that was supporting Keeble's platoon. From his position on the other side of a steep ravine, he watched as a solitary soldier made his way up Hill 663.

The soldier, whom he later learned was Keeble, slowly made his way, firing his automatic rifle, then tossing grenades. One by one, he eliminated three fortified machine-gun nests.

According to eyewitnesses, the Chinese soldiers fired their entire arsenal at Keeble. But he kept coming, sometimes pausing, momentarily stunned by grenade blasts.

"He'd shake it off and charge a little bit more," O'Connel said, recalling the assault during Friday night's gathering at the American Legion hall.

Mario Iezzoni, a fellow member of Keeble's "G" Company, remembered Keeble as a selfless leader who was more concerned about the lives of the troops under his command than he was for his own safety.

In fact, Keebler's soldiers had no idea how serious the wounds he sustained were from the earlier fighting days, which earned him a second Silver Star. Sgt. Keebler went for medical aid only when ordered by a superior officer.

"He wasn't a gung ho, let's go get 'em," Iezzoni said. "He was a gung ho, let me go get 'em. We always called him the Chief, and he was respected like the chief of an Indian tribe."

Well-deserved honor


After Woody Keeble left the Army, in 1953, he returned to Wahpeton. But his war wounds took a toll on his body, which also had been attacked by tuberculosis.

Doctors removed one of his lungs, which caused the first of a series of debilitating strokes, robbing him of his ability to speak.

Kurt Bluedog said in an interview that it was a shame that Keeble's wife, Blossom Iris Hawkins, died last year, months before the Medal of Honor finally was awarded. He said Keebler's life after his military service was difficult, but he never complained.

"It shows there's some justice in the world," Bluedog, a lawyer living in the Twin Cities, said of the posthumous Medal of Honor award and headstone. "The sad thing is he couldn't be here to participate and enjoy. Better late than never."

Yet Keeble's stepdaughter, Kathryn Akipa, noted the timing of Saturday's ceremony was fitting. It was his birthday. Had he lived, Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson Keeble would have turned 91.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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