This Day in History: Master Chief William R. Charette’s Medal of Honor
On this day in 1932, a future Medal of Honor recipient is born. Master Chief William R. Charette was one of five Navy corpsman to receive the Medal of Honor during the Korean War. He was the only one to survive the experience.
Perhaps it was a miracle that he lived? At one point, he’d deliberately positioned himself between a grenade and a wounded Marine. He bore the brunt of the blast, knowing that his wounded colleague could not survive another blow.
But isn’t that what heroes do?
Many Medal recipients have been faced with early challenges, and Charette was no exception. He was orphaned early in life and went to live with his uncle when he was only 5 years old. Later, Charette spent some time working aboard a ferryboat on Lake Michigan. It gave him a little taste of life at sea, and he volunteered to serve in the Navy.
Charette worked in a Navy hospital for about a year before asking to serve as a corpsman (a combat medic) in the war zone. By the time he left for Korea with the Marines in 1953, he was a Navy Hospital Corpsman, Third Class.
In late March, Charette was with some Marine platoons in an area near Panmunjom.
The Chinese had overrun several Marine outposts, including some on a hill called Vegas. The Marines couldn’t let that attack stand, of course. Instead, the Marine units with Charette were pulled out of reserve. The next day, they counterattacked.
“As they neared the battleground,” one historical compendium relates, “[their] attention fixed on the horrors remaining from the previous night. The Marines, for all their reputation for getting out their wounded and dead, had been overwhelmed so quickly that they left the field strewn with men, dead and living. Corpses of Americans hung from the barbed wire surrounding the outpost. Men wounded hours earlier groaned for help.”
“I must confess this was my first major combat,” Charette later reported, “and it was pretty bad.”
The Marines were being pounded with small arms and mortar fire. One observer said that the fire was so consistent that it sounded “like a down-pour of rain on dry leaves.” Making matters worse, the Chinese began rolling grenades down the hill at the Americans. Charette was trying to help a wounded Marine when a grenade landed near the two men. Charette, according to his citation, “immediately threw himself upon the stricken man and absorbed the entire concussion of the deadly missile with his body.” The force of the grenade destroyed Charette’s medical kit and ripped the helmet off his head.
He had so many facial wounds that blood dripped into his eyes, temporarily blinding him.
Injured and without his medical kit, Charette continued on. His citation notes that he “resourcefully improvised emergency bandages by tearing off part of his clothing, and gallantly continued to administer medical aid to the wounded in his own unit and to those in adjacent platoon areas as well.”
At one point, Charette was helping a Marine who was unable to move himself to safety. Charette lifted the wounded man up, even though it meant standing upright himself. It was a dangerous thing to do! He was making himself a target and exposing himself to enemy fire. He did it anyway and carried the wounded Marine to safety.
“You know, you do a job,” Charette said many years after he received his Medal. “I did mine as best I could. And that’s all I’ll tell ya.”
Spoken, humbly, like a true American hero.
Editors of the Boston Publishing Company, The Medal of Honor: A History of Service Above and Beyond (2014)
Medal of Honor citation (William R. Charette; Korea)
Medal of Honor oral histories (William R. Charette; Korea)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (2d ed. 2006)