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This Day in History: Billie Gene Kanell's bravery in Korea

On this day in 1931, a hero is born in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. Billie Gene Kanell was the second of nine children born to Iva and John Kanell.


His sister would later remember him as a gentle soul.


“He always made sure before we did something that everything was okay, little things to make sure his baby sisters and brothers didn’t get hurt,” she told a reporter. He mediated bickering among the siblings, and he helped them with things like band-aids or inflating bicycle tires. He “always had a protective nature about him,” she concluded.


Perhaps that protective nature prompted what came next?

When the Korean War started, Kanell signed up with another boy from Poplar Bluff. “We were just kids, 19 years old,” Jesse Fox remembered. “We were going to join the Missouri National Guard. We walked up there and changed our minds and joined the Army.”


The two would complete basic training together, but then the Army sent them in separate directions. Fox believed that his friend had been stationed in Japan, but he was wrong: Kanell went to Korea instead.


Kanell’s heroism came on September 7, 1951, near Pyongyang. He’d then been in the country for less than two weeks, and he’d just been dispatched with a soldier that he’d known for only an hour.


The two were part of an effort to relieve a patrol in front of the main lines.


“We went up to Hill 717,” Pfc. Steve Mullan later related. “We got there at 8 or 9 pm. A fellow named Rodriguez, me and Billie were in the same bunker . . . . We were in a machine gun bunker and were more exposed than others.”


The enemy attacked in a “fanatical assault,” according to Kanell’s Medal citation. The three men were returning fire and throwing grenades down the hill, but things kept getting worse. Around midnight, Mullan remembered, “Holy Hell exploded” and the “sky lit up like it was the Fourth of July.”


They were being overrun. Just then, a grenade was lobbed into the bunker.


“One of us yelled ‘grenade,’” Mullan explained. “I saw Billie’s hands go up. I could see the silhouette of the grenade. Billie grabbed it with his two hands and put it to his chest. We were all yelling and screaming. I seen him turn his back to me to save me.”


The grenade went off. Kanell was badly wounded, but he was still alive. “All I can remember is that the three of us were just praying. We were all stunned, terribly frightened.” Just then, a second grenade was tossed in. Kanell grabbed that grenade, too. For a second time, he laid his life on the line for his fellow soldiers.


Unfortunately, he did not survive this second sacrifice; however, both Mullan and Rodriguez did.


Kanell would receive the Medal of Honor for his actions. Today, that Medal hangs in the Kanell Hall Veterans Museum and Hall of Heroes on the first floor of the Poplar Bluff Museum. He’s been honored in other ways, too, with streets and buildings named after him. The JROTC Battalion at Poplar Bluff High School has been named in his honor.


“He was a heck of a good guy, probably the best of the bunch,” Fox concluded of his heroic friend.


Just a few weeks ago, Lt. Colonel Jim Medley, an officer at the Missouri Military Academy, spoke of Kanell at a Memorial Day ceremony. “It’s our responsibility as Veterans and citizens to carry his and the over one million heroes torch forward,” Medley concluded, “to ensure their sacrifices were not in vain.


Amen. Rest in peace, Pvt. Kanell.

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