NEWS | March 19, 2008

Woody Keeble proved his mettle long before earning the Medal

By Capt. Thomas W. Mehl National Guard Bureau

National Guard Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson Keeble had already established his reputation as one of the U.S. Army's finest fighters long before his actions of October 1951 in Korea for which President George W. Bush presented him the Medal of Honor posthumously at the White House on March 3.

Born May 16, 1917, in Waubay, S.D., Keeble, a full-blooded Sioux Indian, began his military career in the North Dakota National Guard, serving in Company I, 164th Infantry of Wahpeton, N.D., his hometown. Keeble was called to active duty with this unit on Feb. 10, 1941, and sent to Camp Claiborne, La., as a member of the 34th "Red Bull" Infantry Division.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, the 164th Infantry was relieved from assignment to the 34th Division and sent to California, where it sailed from San Francisco on March 19, 1942 and arrived in Australia on April 7.

Moving to New Caledonia on April 19, the 164th was assigned to the newly organized Americal Division composed primarily of National Guard units from Massachusetts and Illinois. Following a period of training, Keeble and the 164th sailed for the Solomon Islands in October 1942 to an island called Guadalcanal, where the regiment would become the first U.S. Army unit to engage in offensive operations in World War II.

The 164th Infantry went ashore at Guadalcanal on Oct. 13, 1942, reinforcing U.S. Marines, who had landed on Aug. 7, 1942. Keeble and his fellow Citizen-Soldiers were a welcome sight to the battle-weary veterans of the 1st Marine Division. The Marines had dug a perimeter about 10 miles around Henderson Field against an estimated Japanese force of more than 20,000.

James Fenelon of Minneapolis, Minn., served with Keeble in the 164th Infantry on Guadalcanal. He remembers Keeble, who stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 180 pounds, as a great Soldier and leader.

"We were a bunch of country boys," Fenelon said. "Woody was a damn good Soldier. I've never seen a finer one. He carried a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) and would always go out ahead on patrols."

Fenelon said Japanese planes bombed them continuously on Guadalcanal. "We realized right away that those weren't flour-filled potato sacks being dropped on us like in training. They were real bombs," he said.

Japanese forces commenced a counteroffensive against the Soldiers and Marines defending Henderson Field beginning on Oct. 23. Although Keeble's 3rd battalion was the 164th's regimental reserve, it was committed in the early morning hours of Oct. 25 to support the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, which were commanded by the most decorated U.S. Marine in history, Col. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, recipient of five Navy Crosses.

The U.S. Army's official history of the campaign, "Guadalcanal: The First Offensive," by John Miller Jr., details the action: "The two battalions, as disposed that night, did not defend separate sectors, but were intermingled along the front. The Japanese attacked with characteristic resolution all through the night, but every charge was beaten back by the concentrated fire of American small arms, heavy weapons and artillery."

Although the Marines on Guadalcanal were armed with bolt action 1903 Springfield rifles, soldiers of the 164th Infantry were armed with the new eight-shot M1 Garand rifle. This greatly increased the Americans' firepower at Guadalcanal.

"The M1 made the difference," Fenelon said. "The Japanese attack was supposed to be a three-pronged attack, but some of them got lost in the jungle. Otherwise, I might not be here today."

The Guadalcanal Campaign would rage for another four months as soldiers of the 25th and 43rd Infantry Divisions joined the fight. The campaign closed on Feb. 21, 1943, and was a decisive victory for U.S. Forces. Keeble and the rest of the Citizen-Soldiers in North Dakota's 164th Infantry played a vital role in America's victory. It helped signal the beginning of the end for the Japanese war machine, ultimately leading to its formal surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, and the end of World War II.

"Chesty Puller said after the battle, 'You country boys sure can fight,'" Fenelon said.

For his actions on Guadalcanal, Keeble received his first Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and the Combat Infantryman Badge. It was the beginning of a distinguished military career for Keeble that would see him mobilize again with Company I, 164th Infantry on Jan. 16, 1951 for the Korean War. 

The regiment was sent to Fort Rucker, Ala., but Keeble, a veteran of three years of fighting in World War II, volunteered for immediate duty in Korea.

The commanding officer of Company I, Capt. E. Duane Holly, said that Keeble volunteered to go to Korea in place of another man, stating: "Someone's got to teach these kids how to fight."

Thus the stage was set for Keeble's heroic actions in Korea with Company G, 19th Infantry in October 1951 "“ actions "above and beyond the call of duty."