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Kentucky by Heart: Often overlooked, Kentuckians played a major role in Korean War conflict

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

Throughout its history, Kentucky has played an important part in America’s military war efforts. The Korean War Conflict (1950-1953) was no exception.

It saw many Kentuckians engage in acts of heroism in battle, and seven were given the iconic American service award, the Medal of Honor, for their bravery and self-sacrifice. Interestingly, five were eastern Kentucky natives and two were from small communities in the south-central part of the state. Unsung thousands more fought nobly, too.

Colonel William Barber (Photo courtesy Kentucky Medal of Honor Memorial)

It was the time when my father served in the United States Marines, though Dad, married, remained stateside in California at Camp Pendleton, where I was born in a naval hospital in the town of Corona. Makes me wonder if I’d been born if fate had been different for Dad and he’d deployed in Korea.

Doing some research on the war, I learned of the supreme sacrifice of people like Private First Class William Baugh, a Lincoln County 20-year-old, who posthumously received the medal after securing an enemy grenade under his body to protect member of his squad on November 29, 1950, early in the war.

Marine Colonel William Barber, with a wounded leg and under extremely cold conditions, commanded a company of 220 men and held off 1,400 Chinese soldiers during six days of fighting in North Korea. The Morgan County native refused to evacuate his company because he knew it would bring danger to 8,000 other marines in his division, who would be trapped. He received the Medal of Honor by President Truman in 1952.

In the early part of the war in the Battle of Yongsan, PFC David Smith smothered a grenade under his body and saved five men from death or serious injury. He was only 23 and was a native of Rockcastle County. In 2017, the local American Legion changed its name to “David M. Smith, Post #71” in his honor.

Private First Class William Baugh (Photo courtesy National Medal of Honor Museum)

Like PFCs Baugh and Smith, Corporal John Collier died when he threw himself on a grenade after first attacking an enemy machine gun nest with two other men. It took place on September 19, 1950, at the Pusan perimeter.

The medal citation for Collier, born in Worthington, in Greenup County, read: “This intrepid action saved his comrades from death or injury. Cpl. Collier’s supreme, personal bravery, consummate gallantry, and noble self-sacrifice reflect untold glory upon himself and uphold the honored traditions of the military service.”

Carl Dodd did his homeplace, Harlan County, proud, winning both the Silver Star and the Medal of Honor. He originally enlisted in the Army in 1943 during World War II but was discharged after developing a foot problem. Showing dedication and perseverance, he reenlisted in the Army only a few months later.

On January 30, 1951, Lieutenant Dodd led his platoon against Hill 256 near Subuk. Against heavy fire, he single-handedly destroyed a machine gun nest and a mortar position while organizing and encouraging his men. Under his brave leadership, his platoon captured Hill 256.

Having first served in World War II and receiving the Silver and Bronze Stars for bravery in action, Second Lieutenant Darwin Kyle, born in Jenkins, again demonstrated remarkable valor in the Korean War and was recognized posthumously with the Medal of Honor for his actions in Korea on February 16, 1951.

The citation, in part, read that “when his platoon had been pinned down by intense fire, he completely exposed himself to move among and encourage his men to move himself among and encourage his men to continue the advance against enemy forces strongly entrenched on Hill 185.”

The Kentucky Medal of Honor Memorial in Louisville (Photo courtesy military.wikia.org)

Kyle continued similar brave actions of leadership as his platoon advanced toward the hill before being killed himself by enemy machine gun fire. Besides the honor medal, the U.S. Army gave tribute to him by naming a camp near Uijeongbu, in South Korea, “Camp Kyle.”

Ernest West was born in Greenup County and grew up in an orphanage at the Methodist Children’s Home in Versailles. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1950 and later deployed in Korea. On October 12, 1952, PFC West’s unit was ambushed near Sataeri.

Running through heavy fire, he rescued his wounded leader, but while pulling the officer to safety, he was attacked by three enemy soldiers. West shot and killed them with his rifle, and he was wounded and lost an eye in the altercation. Despite the injury, he remained in the battle, helping rescue other Americans and killed three more of the enemy. PFC West became the second Medal of Honor winner from Greenup County. He died on May 1, 2021.

The Korean War, for a multitude of reasons, has often been called the “Forgotten War.” But for loved ones of some 54,000 Americans, including 876 Kentuckians who died and many more wounded as a result of the war, it cannot and should not be forgotten.

Sources: In Their Own Words: Kentucky Veterans of the Korean War (KET Documentaries, produced by Tom Bickel and released in 2013); The Kentucky Encyclopedia; history.ky.gov; cmohs.org; wnky.com; Kentucky Medal of Honor Memorial, Louisville; mohmuseum.org; veterans.ky.gov; kynghistory.ky.gov; archives.gov; military.com.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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