On this day in 1931, a hero is born. Duane E. Dewey would go on to join the United States Marine Corps, but it wasn’t his original plan. As a 16-year-old, he’d tried to join the Air Force, but his plans were foiled when his mother discovered what he was up to.
A few years later, as an adult, he would end up volunteering for the Marines instead.
By April 1952, Cpl. Duane E. Dewey was serving with his unit in Panmunjom, Korea. The Marines were at an outpost behind the main American force, and Dewey had just begun watch in a machine gun hole. It was about midnight on the 16th.
“I had dug down in the hole to light a cigarette,” Dewey later recounted, “and something went over our heads. And boom! I said, ‘I think that was a grenade.’ And at about that time, another went over us and bang! I said, ‘now I know it’s grenades.’”
The Marines in the hole started lobbing grenades back. “All hell broke loose,” Dewey concluded.
The outpost was being overrun. Fire erupted everywhere. Dewey was firing his machine gun so fast that he briefly wondered if the gun could withstand it. Finally, the Marines began to run out of ammo, so Dewey volunteered to make a run for some. He told those around him, “When I return, I’m going to be on the run, and I’m just going to holler, ‘This is Dewey, don’t shoot me!’ Because I didn’t want to give away the password because that’s how close [the Chinese] were to us.”
Dewey retrieved ammo, but it wouldn’t be enough. The Marines were in a tough spot. They went through the new ammo pretty quickly and were soon forced to pull back into a smaller perimeter. There were no foxholes, and Dewey was out in the open.
Soon, a grenade hit near his feet. It knocked him down, injuring him in the thigh and groin. A medic was tending to him when another grenade hit.
“I grabbed it, and I’m going to throw it,” he later described. “First impulse is to get rid of it, right? But I’m lying flat on my back, and I’m thinking that I can’t get this out of reach . . . .”
In the end, he pushed it under his hip, yelling at the medic to “hit the dirt, Doc!”
Unbelievably, Dewey survived and was carried to an aid station. He was treated and moved to a trench with other wounded Americans. There was nothing for Dewey to do but lie there and wonder which side would win.
“You’re laying there and you’re thinking, okay this is it. . . . So I said a prayer, I didn’t pray for myself, but I prayed for my wife and my daughter. Just that, you know, she’d find a good father for her daughter and a good husband for herself.”
Perhaps the prayer saved the father and husband they already had? Dewey survived the night and was evacuated in the morning. He was covered in shrapnel wounds and had taken a bullet to the stomach at some point during his ordeal. He was treated in a Japanese hospital for three months before being transferred to the States for the remainder of his recovery.
Once back in the States, he learned that he was to receive a Medal of Honor. It would be the very first Medal awarded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. “You must have a body of steel,” Eisenhower joked as he gave Dewey the Medal.
But that wasn’t the only surprise in store for Dewey. After his Medal ceremony, he returned home to an amazing discovery: His community had built his family a three-bedroom house, fully furnished—and with a fully stocked kitchen, to boot.
When Dewey was asked what he thought of these accolades, he remained humble. “I didn’t do anything that someone else in my position wouldn’t have done,” he concluded.
Erik Slavin, Silent influence from 'body of steel' guides family (Stars and Stripes; June 12, 2013)
Medal of Honor citation (Duane E. Dewey; Korean War)
Medal of Honor oral histories (Duane E. Dewey; Korean War)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (2d ed. 2006)