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This Day in History: Archie Van Winkle's bravery in Korea

On this day in 1952, a hero receives the Medal of Honor. Colonel Archie Van Winkle is one of only two Medal recipients to hail from the State of Alaska. He was the son of a logger and a World War I veteran. Perhaps it came naturally to volunteer for the United States Marine Corps when World War II began?

Van Winkle served there with distinction, earning two Air Medals and a Distinguished Flying Cross during 62 Pacific missions. He was honorably discharged and could have resumed civilian life. Instead, he volunteered to serve again, this time in the Korean War.

His heroism came on November 2, 1950, in Sudong, North Korea, just as the UN’s advance to the Chosin Reservoir was beginning.

Night had fallen, and then-Staff Sergeant Van Winkle’s platoon was stretched out for a hundred yards. The young Marine leapt from fox hole to fox hole, checking on his men, before finally settling into one fox hole with four others.

“I was in an outfit on top of a hill with four other men,” he later described. “I was a platoon sergeant then. The men were green, and I went up the hill to stay with them.”

Suddenly, a numerically superior enemy force attacked. “The whole area seemed to explode,” Van Winkle said of these moments. “There were flares, tracers, grenades. It sounded like a symphony with me in the middle of the orchestra.”

He made a fighting retreat towards the rest of the platoon, but then he did something that must have surprised the enemy: He rallied his men, turned, and charged, leading an attack straight into enemy lines. He was wounded during this charge, as were the others, but his Medal citation credits the charge with “enabling his platoon to gain the fire superiority and the opportunity to reorganize.”

Van Winkle wasn’t done, of course. Just then, he turned to see that the left flank of the squad had become isolated, separated from the main force. He was injured in one elbow, leaving that arm useless; nevertheless, he ran through enemy fire to reunite his troops. His effort succeeded, but he was soon hit again, this time by a grenade.

He would later matter-of-factly summarize his injuries for a journalist back home: “I was hit by a piece of hand grenade on the left arm. Then a bullet hit me under the left shoulder blade. A concussion grenade went off in my face and knocked me rolling down a hill. I fell off a cliff and busted some ribs. That’s about it, I guess.”

The grenade had knocked him down, but he refused to be evacuated. He barked orders and words of encouragement at his men until he passed out from blood loss. Only then could he be evacuated to receive medical care.

He survived, but the doctors would later say that he’d been brought to them in the nick of time.

Van Winkle would receive the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony in February 1952. He was commissioned a second lieutenant one day later—and became the proud father of a baby boy just a few weeks after that!

Newspapers printed pictures of the new baby, Medal of Honor hung around his neck, even as they jokingly reported on the “worried nurse who thought the medal should be sterilized.”

Van Winkle was humble about his actions, as so many heroes are. “It seemed to me I just did what came natural,” he concluded. “There’s an awful lot of guys still over there, dead, that did a lot more.”

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Primary Sources:

  • A Hero’s Rewards (Press and Sun-Bulletin; Feb. 26, 1952) (p. 20)

  • Archie is Brave, But Times Like These.... (Palm Beach Post; Feb. 15, 1952) (p. 14)

  • Colonel Archie Van Winkle, USMCR (deceased) (Marine Corps University website)

  • Hero is Jittery Awaiting Stork (Billings Gazette; Feb. 15, 1952) (p. 14)

  • Heroic Sergeant 12th Marine to get Medal of Honor (Columbus Enquirer; Feb. 2, 1952) (p. 4)

  • Medal Awarded Former Marine: Everett Man Was Wounded in Action in North Korea (Spokesman-Review; Jan. 28, 1952) (p. 20)

  • Medal of Honor citation (Archie Van Winkle; Korean War)

  • Medal Winner Gets Officer Commission (Corvallis Gazette-Times; Feb. 7, 1952) (p. 6)

  • Obituary: Archie Van Winkle, a Hero (Philadelphia Inquirer; May 29, 1986) (p. 4E)

  • Obituary: Archie Van Winkle; Earned Medal of Honor in Korea (Chicago Tribune; May 30, 1986) (Section 2; p. 10)

  • Proud Parents (Clovis News-Journal; Feb. 27, 1952) (p. 1)

  • Washington Medal Winner Wants Kin to Make Trip (Fairbanks Daily News-Miner; Jan. 29, 1952) (p. 3)


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