On this day in 1932, a hero is born. David B. Champagne would go on to join the United States Marine Corps, later becoming the only Rhode Island native awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions during the Korean War.
“David was a good boy,” his father later said. “He was well-liked. He was always happy. He wasn’t running around drinking or anything like that. He had a paper route . . . . He liked to fish, and he played different sports. He worked as an usher in a theater . . . . He was a good student at school, too.”
Others agreed. “Good-natured and likable,” a school yearbook caption concluded, “Dave keeps his pals chuckling with his dry humor.”
Champagne and his high school friend, Bill Powers, both decided to enlist in the Marines. They were separated at first—but not for long.
“When we boarded the ship in San Diego, we met again,” Bill Powers explained. “It took us like 19 days to get to Japan. Then we both got called to the 7th Marines, and then we both got called to the First Battalion.”
Would you believe that they ultimately ended up on the same 13-man squad and the same 4-man team?
Corporal Champagne’s bravery came on May 28, 1952. He was then a fire team leader, and his platoon was assaulting an enemy position atop a hill.
The young Marine “skillfully led his fire team through a veritable hail of intense enemy machine-gun, small-arms, and grenade fire,” his Medal citation describes, “overrunning trenches and a series of almost impregnable bunker positions before reaching the crest of the hill and placing his men in defensive positions.”
He was wounded by then, but he refused to be evacuated. The counterattacks from the enemy were intensifying, and he intended to stay.
Just then, an enemy grenade landed near Champagne and his team. The young Corporal promptly grabbed the grenade to throw it back. “He saw it and then hollered ‘grenade,’” his friend Powers later explained, “and he grabbed it. He more or less took the blast for all of us.”
The grenade had exploded, just as Champagne was hurling it back. The explosion tore off his hand and threw him out of the trench he’d been using with his men.
“Thank God a corpsman came right away,” Powers concluded. “We were still in a heap of trouble. For just a few seconds, I held him. It seemed like he was trying to say something, but there was this big hole in his head. That was the last I saw of him.” Powers knew his friend was a hero. “He saved my life,” he concluded, simply.
Champagne did not survive. After he’d been thrown from the trench, he was left exposed to enemy fire that ultimately cost him his life.
The Medal of Honor would be presented to his younger brother about a year later. (His older brother was serving in the Air Force.) The young Marine had led a “short heroic life,” one journalist later concluded.
His father talked about these events many years later. “They can keep the medals. . . it’s the boy that counts,” he told a reporter. Yet he felt no resentment about what had occurred. He knew his son had wanted to serve. He mostly wished that he’d served in World War II so he could experience what both his sons had. “I wish it was me that got hurt,” he concluded.
An American family giving their all for the country they love.
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Clayton LaVerdiere, When Memories Mean So Much (Morning Sentinel; Aug. 28, 1989) (p. 8)
Clayton LaVerdiere, Star Shines on Courage in Korea (Morning Sentinel; May 14, 1994) (p. 4M)
Corporal David Bernard Champagne, USMC (Deceased) (United States Marine Corps History Division) (archived web page HERE)
Larry Grard, Korean War Hero Honored (Morning Sentinel; Oct. 21, 1997) (p. 9)
Larry Grard, Postal Facility Honors War Hero (Portland Press Herald; May 13, 1998) (p. 8B)
Medal of Honor citation (David Bernard Champagne)
New Base Facilities Named for Memorable Marines (Fortitudine: Newsletter of the Marine Corps Historical Program; Summer 1997) (p. 22)
Philip Norvish, David Champagne, Waterville Boy Who Won Medal of Honor (Morning Sentinel; May 30, 1977) (p. 7)
U.S. Marines in the Korean War (Charles Richard Smith ed., History Division, U.S. Marine Corps; 2007)