During 2019, Freedoms Foundation and the Friends of the Medal of Honor Grove are paying tribute to the living recipients of the Medal of Honor on the anniversary of the actions for which they earned the nation’s highest award for valor. The series continues with Private First Class Ernest E. West, whose unit was ambushed on Oct. 12, 1952, near Sataeri, Korea.
Peter Collier, in Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty, writes:
“West did his basic training as part of the 25th Infantry in Hawaii – a “paradise” in comparison to what he would experience in Korea, which he regarded as a frozen hell in the winter and a suffocating hell in the summertime. For a Kentucky boy who had dropped out of high school to take a job on the railroad before being drafted in 1950, Korea was simply the most unfriendly environment he could imagine.
“In the fall of 1952, West’s unit was near Sataeri. It was a hilly area, and after dark the U.S. soldiers were monitoring Chinese troops with primitive night vision equipment. …
“On Oct. 12, West was one of 16 Americans who volunteered for a mission to try to capture some of the enemy for interrogation. Moving as silently as possible through a valley separating the U.S. and Chinese positions, they came to a rise leading up to the enemy bunkers. Half of the group stayed behind with machine guns. The others began to climb up toward the enemy, with West walking ahead as the point man. Suddenly the Chinese began to roll grenades down onto them. One passed between West’s legs and exploded near his lieutenant, who was just behind him. Two other Americans also went down. Realizing that his contingent had walked into an ambush, West ordered those who were not hurt to retreat.”
His Medal of Honor citation describes West’s actions that day:
“PFC West distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy.
“He voluntarily accompanied a contingent to locate and destroy a reported enemy outpost. Nearing the objective, the patrol was ambushed and suffered numerous casualties.
“Observing his wounded leader lying in an exposed position, PFC West ordered the troops to withdraw, then braved intense fire to reach and assist him. While attempting evacuation, he was attacked by three hostile soldiers employing grenades and small-arms fire. Quickly shifting his body to shelter the officer, he killed the assailants with his rifle, then carried the helpless man to safety. He was critically wounded and lost an eye in this action. but courageously returned through withering fire and bursting shells to assist the wounded. While evacuating two comrades, he closed with and killed three more of the foe.
“PFC West’s indomitable spirit, consummate valor, and intrepid actions inspired all who observed him, reflect the highest credit on himself, and uphold the honored traditions of the military service.”
Collier continues the story:
“West spent the next 10 months in the hospital, most of it at Walter Reed. Doctors tried to save his eye by positioning a large powerful magnet over it to draw out the shrapnel, but the procedure didn’t work and the eye had to be removed. Finally released from the service, West returned to Kentucky. It was hard for him not to feel that he was still at war. On his first day back at his old job on the railroad, a co-worker came up behind him and clapped him on the shoulder. West instinctively turned and wrestled the man down. He quickly apologized: ‘Sorry, but you’ll have to give me a month or two. Just talk to me, don’t touch me.’
“Early in 1954, West got a telegram informing him that he was to receive the Medal of Honor. His railroad arranged to make a special stop in his hometown of Russell, where he boarded a private car that carried him to Washington, D.C. After putting the medal around his neck on Jan. 12, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said to West, ‘In addition to this decoration, you have an old soldier’s admiration.’
“Ernest West returned home and continued to work on the railroad until his retirement in 1993.”
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