“I felt surprisingly calm as the president presented the MOH – I was standing in back, and it felt like I was watching television, almost surrealistic. But I had been aware that Bush actually signed the upgrade three months earlier, so this was almost anti-climactic,” said Helm, observing the ceremony for North Dakota’s most decorated soldier.
The next day, March 4, Helm was at the Pentagon when Keeble was added to the Hall of Heroes there.
“They have a special Medal of Honor flag that I didn’t know about,” said Helm. “Deputy SECDEF (secretary of defense Gordon) England had made an incredible speech that was the most authentic of any during those days. And then a soldier in dress blues came onto the stage with this triangular-folded flag, which he very formally handed to England – and England handed to Russ Hawkins, Woody’s stepson. It felt like the presentation of an American flag at a funeral, and I dissolved in tears. It was the only thing I hadn’t mentally prepared for.”
Keeble was the first full-blooded Sioux Indian to receive the honor. He was born in South Dakota and grew up in North Dakota. He was also a veteran of World War II.
It had taken nearly 60 years for Keeble to be awarded the medal that he earned on the battlefield in Korea, a fact President Bush pointed out at the ceremony. The presentation came 26 years after Keeble’s death.
Helm, a freelance researcher and writer from Fargo and a native of Anamoose, helped with the effort to get Keeble the Medal of Honor. She’s working on obtaining funding for a documentary about him.
Helm said many people and organizations worked on getting the Medal of Honor for Keeble. “I think I came along at a time when my particular life and career experience made me a useful player,” she said.
Helm first learned of Keeble while researching and writing stories for “Dakota Datebook,” a daily program on North Dakota Public Radio. She said she “stumbled onto an article” about Keeble in March 2004 in an edition of the 164th Infantry News dated March 1969. She said Keeble’s story stood out from the rest and she began investigating it on the side.
Helm said Keeble was twice recommended for the Medal of Honor for actions in North Korea on Oct. 20, 1951, but incomplete records, as well as what appeared to be the loss of the two formal recommendations for the Medal of Honor, prevented Keeble from being considered for the commendation.
Taking on the project to help get Keeble his Medal of Honor, Helm said she has been in constant contact with his stepchildren, Russell Hawkins and Kathryn Akipa, and also with Kurt Bluedog, Woody’s grand-nephew.
“They have been carrying on this crusade for decades, and Russell has never waned in his determination to get this honor for his stepfather – they were very close,” Helm said.
In researching Keeble and the goal of proving that he deserved the Medal of Honor upgrade, Helm met with men who fought beside him in the October 1951 battle in Korea. She attended reunions of the 24th Infantry Division to talk to veterans of that battle. Keeble was attached to G Company, 19th Regiment, 24th Division in Korean.
She made several trips to the National Archives in College Park, Md., to recreate the battle in which Keeble’s extraordinary actions took place.
When she finished compiling her case, Michael Haugen, former North Dakota adjutant general, and North Dakota senators Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan joined the cause, taking it to the upper levels of government, she said.
“I have since found documents showing this case has been ongoing since the 1950s. Both Quentin Burdick and Milton Young (North Dakota senators) tried to get this upgrade during their terms. Letters were written to (presidents) Eisenhower and Nixon and any number of senators,” she said.
Helm plans to make a documentary about Keeble. She’s also making preparations for movies relating to Keeble and the Korean War.
She briefly talked about her plans for the documentary.
“Since getting to know the men who fought beside Woody, I’ve come to realize how incredibly violent and brutal the Korean War was. To have these men remain ‘invisible’ drives me nuts. So this documentary won’t just be about Woody Keeble, it will be about the realities of combat in Korea – the impossibleclimate and terrain features, the skill of the Chinese they were fighting, the hideousness of Operation Nomad-Polar during which Woody was wounded on Oct. 15, 18 and 20.
“He received a Silver Star for actions on the 18th and was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on the 20th. Woody went through Guadalcanal, some of the most fierce ground fighting of WWII. When his men asked if Operation Nomad was as bad as Guadalcanal, he told them Korea was worse.
“So this documentary is intended to show far more than who Woody Keeble was – Korean War veterans need for the public to see what they went through, how they were more short-changed than even the Vietnam War veterans, and how they continue to suffer to this day – yet remain invisible,” Helm said.
(Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944 or Managing Editor Kent Olson at 857-1939. Either can be reached at 1-800-735-3229. You also can send e-mail suggestions to email@example.com.)
Merry Helm, right, a Fargo resident and native of Anamoose, is shown in this photo with Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., in his Washington, D.C., office. Dorgan is presenting her with his reading in the Senate of Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson Keeble’s Medal of Honor, which was entered in the Congressional Record. Dorgan made the presentation to Helm before the Medal of Honor ceremony March 3.