This Day in History: William Barber's Medal of Honor
On this day in 1950, a hero begins a multi-day action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. That conflict has been described as a “desperate five-day defense of a frozen mountain pass”—and then-Captain William Barber was right in the thick of it.
Barber was a Marine who had already served in World War II, earning a Silver Star and a Purple Heart at Iwo Jima. “It was tough combat,” he shrugged, “but we were tough.”
He would be called back to the front lines of Korea in late 1950.
“We got to Hagaru probably the 12th of November,” he explained. “It was bitterly cold . . . . The 1st Marine Division was continuing to advance north. A single road connected Yudam-ni and Hagaru. I was assigned to go up there and take position and keep the road open.”
Trouble came the night of November 27-28 when the Chinese launched an attack. Barber was badly outnumbered with 240 men, compared to at least 1,000 enemy forces. Our men fought gallantly for hours in frigid temperatures, but they were soon surrounded.
Barber knew that he couldn’t give up that pass. It was the only escape route for Marines then stranded at Yudam-ni. So when he got an order to leave, he didn’t do it.
“I knew how important this piece of real estate was,” he said, simply. He felt that he could hold the land if he were backed up by air strikes and resupplied by airdrops.
Was he defying an order that he should have obeyed? His citation speaks of his willingness to lose his command to save more Marines. For his part, Barber describes the situation a bit differently.
“[M]y inclination was always to obey the spirit of any order I received,” he told an interviewer, “and improve on it if I could, expand it and add to it. As I started sizing up my situation, it was obvious to me that it was very important to hold this piece of ground. I decided that I was as capable of holding it as I was of moving back to Hagaru in any good order, so I just sent an amplifying message, recommended that we stay where we were and requesting a resupply by air.”
Barber got his way.
By the 29th, Barber had been shot in the hip, but he was still holding the ground and directing his men. His Medal citation declares that Barber was so tenacious in his command that he was “often moving up and down the lines on a stretcher to direct the defense.” Barber was more modest, claiming that “somebody added that for drama.”
He was on the stretcher “some,” he said, but his men had also “rigged a sort of crutch or cane for me, and that’s how I got around.”
Either way, Barber and his men persevered for five days and six nights—one of these days was Barber’s 31st birthday, but he couldn’t focus on that. He was focused on his men. The Chinese attacks kept coming at night when American air attacks were less of a threat, but snipers also kept Barber’s men pinned down during the day. Barber used these lulls to better prepare his men. “I wanted them in the fighting holes taking care of themselves,” he said, “and getting their weapons in shape for the night.”
Finally, the Marines at Yudam-ni broke out and made their way toward Barber and his men. He’d held on long enough.
“His profound faith and courage, great personal valor, and unwavering fortitude,” his citation concludes, “were decisive factors in the successful withdrawal of the division from the deathtrap in the Chosin Reservoir sector.”
Naturally, Barber didn’t think he’d done anything special.
“I thought then and thought now that it was a tribute to our performance of our mission,” he concluded, “to the Marines I’ve served with.”
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Colonel William Earl Barber, USMC (Deceased) (Marine Corps University)
Katie Lange, Medal of Honor Monday: Marine Corps Col. William E. Barber (U.S. Dept of Defense website; Dec. 2, 2019)
Larry Smith, Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words (2003)
Medal of Honor citation (William Earl Barber; Korea)
Medal of Honor oral history (William Earl Barber; Korea)