On this day in 1972, a hero passes away. Years earlier, Dexter Kerstetter had received a Medal of Honor for his bravery in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
Perhaps no one expected the Centralia, Washington, native to become a national hero? For starters, he was “too old” to be joining the Army.
“He joined the Army when he was 37 years old and they called him ‘pops,’” his daughter explained. Kerstetter began as a cook’s helper in the mess hall, but then, as he would say, he “got tired of being a cook.”
He wanted to be on the frontlines. So, when his company landed at Luzon, in the Philippine Islands, he asked for a transfer out of the kitchen. His request was approved, and he was soon serving as a forward scout.
Then-Pfc. Kerstetter’s Medal action came during a dawn attack on April 13, 1945. Allied forces were working to take a ridge near Galiano, but Kerstetter’s unit had become pinned down. The incoming fire was intense, and Kerstetter’s Medal citation would later describe the “enemy mortars, machine guns, and rifles in well-camouflaged spider holes and tunnels leading to caves” that our boys were facing.
Kerstetter knew what he had to do. He charged forward, alone, working his way up the steep ridge toward the Japanese and taking the brunt of their fire.
“With well-aimed shots and rifle-grenade fire,” his citation describes, “he forced the Japs to take cover.” He worked his way down a cliff and dropped in front of a cave, swinging his rifle from his hip and killing four of the enemy who’d been there. He turned, advancing towards a heavy machine gun crew with more rifle fire and grenades. He took that nest out, too.
“He got shot in the bottom, his hands were severely burned, but he just kept going,” his daughter later described. He returned to his squad only when he ran out of ammunition. Even then, he stopped just long enough to grab more ammo and to receive a quick dressing on one hand. It had been blistered by heat from his rifle.
He was soon back at it, leading his platoon back toward the Japanese. He knew exactly where the enemy positions were.
Ultimately, the hill was taken and held against enemy counterattacks for three days. Kerstetter would later be credited as “largely responsible for the capture of this key enemy position.”
After the war, Kerstetter returned to the states, building a career as a machinist at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.
Unfortunately, tragedy hit on July 9, 1972, as Kerstetter went fishing in the Hood Canal with his sons. The boat was hit by two large swells, and it capsized, leaving the trio stranded in the cold water. They remained there for hours, without rescue, and Kerstetter ultimately got separated from his sons. He disappeared, and his body was never recovered. It’s presumed that he drowned.
A local city council designed a “Lt. Col. Dexter J. Kerstetter Day” in the wake of this hero’s death, praising his “courage in face of adversity” and noting that “his life has been a synonym for service.”
“[H]e wasn’t one to talk about what he did during the war,” one of his nieces concluded. Another niece concurred: “He was really quiet, and he never bragged, that’s the kind of person he was.”
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Bremerton Medal of Honor Winner Drowns at Seabeck (Kitsap Sun; July 10, 1972) (p. 1)
Dexter Kerstetter Memorial Services Set Saturday (Bremerton (Wash.) Sun; Aug. 2, 1972) (p. 10)
Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D., President Harry S. Truman awards Dexter J. Kerstetter the Medal of Honor on October 12, 1945 (HistoryLink.org; Sept. 13, 2014)
G.I., Tired of Cooking, Wins Medal of Honor (Clinton Daily Journal and Public; Dec. 5, 1945) (p. 6)
Matthew Zylstra, Centralia Native, Medal of Honor Recipient Dexter Kerstetter Honored With New Sign (Chronicle Online; June 20, 2022)
Medal of Honor citation (Dexter James Kerstetter; WWII)
Medal Winner Dexter Kerstetter Drowns (Olympian; July 11, 1972) (p. 2)
Tom Koenninger, County’s First Medal of Honor Winner was Known as ‘Pop’ (Daily Chronicle; July 22, 1972) (p. 6)