A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

John Schickel: Petersburg honors Vietnam war hero Fleek; threw himself on grenade to save comrades

When I moved to Boone County many years ago (1977), I had heard of Sgt. Charles ‘Chalkie’ Fleek being killed in Vietnam and receiving the Medal of Honor.

Sen. Schickel

I’m ashamed to admit that not since I sponsored the legislation to designate Kentucky Route 20 the “Sgt. Charles Fleek Memorial Highway” through Sgt. Fleek’s hometown of Petersburg, KY, did I realize how significant it was.  Charles Fleek is the only person from Boone County to ever receive the nation’s highest military honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The story of his gallant action is quite amazing. On May 27, 1969, he was leading a squad of twelve men in Vien Dong, Vietnam, when his group engaged the enemy in a fierce firefight. A grenade was thrown by the enemy into a group of men, which they did not see.

Fleek, aware many people would be killed, threw himself on the grenade.  Accompanying the medal is a statement acknowledging that this heroic action saved the lives of eight of his comrades.

Charles ‘Chalkie’ Fleek, like so many others killed in Vietnam, came from a very humble family.

The last several weeks I have researched his family with the help of the Boone County Public Library, as well as people who knew him firsthand in Petersburg.  Like so many young men of that time, he left school after his freshman year of high school to help support the family.

Fleek

Looking at the picture in his freshman yearbook at Boone County High, his appearance comes across as that of a young boy.

He took the ferry to Lawrenceburg, IN, just across the river each day for work at the Seagram’s Distillery, at a time long before the I-275 bridge was constructed.  His father worked as an upholsterer for a casket company and took the same ferry to his job. His mother was a cook in Florence at the Burns Brothers truck stop.

When Charles received word that he was going to be drafted, he joined the U.S. Army. Rachel Dottinger, a retired school teacher and neighbor to the family, recalled in newspaper reports many years ago how polite Chalkie was and how he said goodbye to all the elderly members of the community before he left, stating that he might not make it back.

Letters to his older brother conveyed how much he missed home and prayed the war would be over soon.  Approximately nine months later, he was killed.

For months his family was unable to learn how he was killed; eventually they received word of his gallant action. His mother and father, two brothers, and a sister only 5 years of age, all traveled to D.C. to receive the medal from President Richard Nixon.

The town of Petersburg is like a time capsule in Boone County, a small village on the Ohio River far from the hustle and bustle of the larger areas.  It’s amazing to me how many people from Boone County have never been to Petersburg. If this is you, I encourage you to visit.

Recently, Chris Courtney, an assistant to the Boone County Fiscal Court, and myself took a walk around the town with the longtime Fire Chief Bill Birkle.  Chief Birkle knew Chalkie personally, because he grew up right across the street from him.

Sgt. Fleek was a volunteer with the fire department. We saw the house in which Chalkie grew up and visited an old Bellview couple, the Hitchfield’s, who knew him personally as well.

Later we visited the peaceful and beautiful Petersburg Cemetery, nestled in corn fields, and met with a grave digger named Rodney Campbell who was donning a ball cap that read “Grave Digger”.  He proudly informed us that his nickname is “Pickle”, and that he still digs graves by hand in about 90 minutes.  He took us to Chalkie’s simple grave with a simple headstone. His parents and brother are buried nearby.

On Friday, August 17, we will gather at 9 a.m. at the Petersburg Community Center to once again honor this fallen hero. Three signs will be unveiled.

Two signs will designate Kentucky Route 20 through Petersburg as the Sgt. Charles Fleek Memorial Highway. The third sign will be displayed outside the community center, informing visitors that this is the hometown of Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Charles ‘Chalkie’ Fleek.

Children from Charles H. Kelly Elementary School, in nearby Belleview, will be in attendance to sing “God Bless America”.  We will then travel a short distance to his gravesite at the Petersburg Cemetery where Boone County resident Gary Griesser will offer prayer, a wreath will be laid at the grave by family members, an American Legion color guard will perform a 21-gun salute, and “Taps” will be played by Kenton County Sherriff Chuck Korzenborn.

This event is open to the public, and I would encourage everyone who is able to attend this remembrance.

Note:  Senator John Schickel (R-Union) represents the 11th District in Boone County.

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