Angel of the Marines

A Story of the Ultimate Sacrifice in a War Long Forgotten

By Fred E. Kasper USN

Steam glistened hints of gray and blue as it spiraled over the roadways and rooftops in the quaint little town of Taunton, Massachusetts. It was early spring, 1944 as the morning frost invitingly greeted the sun. The smell of fresh baked bread filled the air for blocks, tantalizing the senses of even the strongest willed. At the corner nickel and dime store, the shop owner carefully swept dirt from the sidewalk with a cornhusk broom and hurriedly opened his doors for the day's activities. American flags gently waved in testament of proud display from several storefronts, while fueled debate over the war echoed from the local barbershop. Down the road the paperboy made his exchange to passing motorist on their way to work: “Extra…Extra… Read all about it…get your Daily Gazette here… Three cents!”

Further along town, Richard DeWert, a quiet and playful 13 year old, meticulously built a makeshift fort out of cardboard in his backyard. Pretending to be a doctor, he carefully bandaged the injuries of his make-believe comrades and conjured visions of these toy soldiers winning the war against the axis powers in Europe. His imagination was oftentimes the only refuge he had in the turmoil and confusion he called home. Richard's natural mother continuously struggled to care for him as a single mother, however, with mounting pressures, she lost the battle to her own demons and regretfully had to place him in a foster home.

Richard now faced a serious dilemma at a very young age, one of substantial pain and sorrow, as loneliness shattered his playful spirit and forced him to grow old beyond his years. His loneliness was quickly answered when Albertina and Joseph Roy welcomed Richard into their home. The Roy's were unable to have children to call their own and were tormented by this grim reality. Richard quickly became the child the Roy's never had and flourished in the love and comfort they provided to him, so much in fact, that he began to dream of the future for the first time. His dream was to join the Navy and become a doctor.

He excitedly shared this dream with anyone that would listen, especially the Roy's, who offered him the valuable encouragement he needed. A compassionate young man was quickly developing. This compassion was further highlighted some years later when Richard later went on a chaperoned date with a local girl and witnessed a small dog in the middle of the road. The dog was near starvation and in miserable condition, shivering uncontrollably from the cold and rain. Richard pleaded for them to stop the vehicle as he gently picked up the dog and returned to the car. He then brought the animal home and spent the next several days nurturing it back to full health.

 

August 20, 1944: Richard DeWert in Boy Scout uniform shortly after his arrival to the Roy family.

 

How this spirited little boy who saved a small dog developed in to one of America's greatest heroes will be left for all readers to ponder. What is known is how Richard DeWert consistently displayed acts of selflessness and compassion in the approaching years that touched the lives of an entire nation, and captured the hearts and minds of every Marine, Sailor, Soldier, and Airman. A hero, as you will read, deeply committed to his country, and befitting of his Nations highest military award, the Medal of Honor.

As 1945 came to a close, the news of victory in World War II was still unfolding. Our troops were finally coming home and a sense of tranquility gradually resumed in this small town. An average student, Richard was frequently preoccupied and never quite satisfied with his place in the classroom. A burning passion resided within him outside of school, a passion that somehow knew there were bigger things in store for him. As the months went by, Richard took up a job at a local butcher shop for extra spending money, however, his dream to serve his country and one day become a doctor continued to be foremost in his mind.

Soft spoken and ambitious, he remained more determined than ever to see his dream become a reality. Having just turned 17 a month earlier, he walked in to the Navy Recruiting Station in Brockton, Massachusetts, and enlisted in the Navy as a Hospital Corpsman. The date was December 2, 1948. He would have one day to say good-bye to the Roy's, for he would be shipping off to Boot Camp the following day.

From December 3, 1948 until July 22, 1949, Richard attended basic training and Hospital Corps “A” School at the Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, Illinois. In late July 1949, he received orders to the Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, Virginia where he later applied to attend Operating Room Technician School. As events developed in the Korean Peninsula following North Korea's invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, the US Military responded by going on full alert. Consequently, Richard dropped Operating Room Technician School and volunteered to serve with the First Medical Battalion, First Marine Division.

As Richard prepared for deployment while waiting at Camp Pendleton, California in August of 1950, he met a Dental Technician by the name of Francis J. Redding (now a retired Lieutenant Commander in the Navy's Medical Service Corps). They soon realized they had a lot in common: both were assigned to First Medical Battalion, both the rank of E-3, and both shared the same age. They were quickly dispatched on numerous work details loading gear and equipment aboard ships in San Diego as the urgency of getting our forces to Korea grew by the minute. The little spare time they had was swiftly consumed as they received crash courses on how to properly wear their new Marine uniforms, assemble their field equipment, and make the gradual and oftentimes tough adjustment to the Marine Corps. It was unknown to them at the time just how soon their lives would change forever, as innocence turned to harsh reality and the United States fully engaged in actions against North Korea.

 

Map showing the demarcation line established by USSR and the US at the conclusion of WWII.

 

Richard and Francis spent the next six months together with the First Medical Battalion as they assembled field hospitals, took in the wounded, and embarked on numerous campaigns to include the amphibious assault and seizure of Inchon, South Korea; the assault and liberation of Seoul, South Korea; and the First Marine Division's advance deep into, and the subsequent withdrawal from North Korea. “He was a fairly reserved person, and was very gung-ho”, recalled Redding, who currently resides in New York. From the very onset of operations at Inchon, Hospitalman (HN) Richard DeWert repeatedly requested to be transferred with the front-line Marines where he felt he could be more effective. “It was the stuff hero's are made of, as if he knew his destiny and it was written there before him”, recalls Redding. It wasn't long before Richard's time with Francis and the First Medical Battalion came to an end however, as he was ordered to the “Mighty Seventh Marines.”

Upon reactivation on 17 August 1950, the Seventh Marine Regiment was called upon time and time again as a fighting machine to be reckoned with in turning the tides against the North Korean and Chinese Communist Forces. They frequently encountered insurmountable odds, and paid dearly in American lives. In the months preceding Richards' arrival, “Dog” Company, Second Battalion, Seventh Marines (D-2-7) had experienced some of the most epic small arms battles in history. In contrast, the Seventh Marine Regiment suffered more casualties than any other Marine unit in the Korean war according to Jim Lawrence, Operations Officer for Second Battalion, Seventh Marines at the time. Lawrence, a veteran of Korea and the battle for Guadalcanal in WWII continued a successful 30-year career in the Marine Corps until his retirement in 1972 as a Brigadier General.

From the time they landed at Inchon, Dog Company faced critical challenges collectively and as individual Marines, while life and death hung in the balance at every corner. During operations in the capture of Seoul on 26 September 1950, Dog Company, having been informed that the city was secure, walked into an ambush of well-entrenched North Korean soldiers. Pinned down under intense small arms and automatic fire, the men from Dog Company put up a courageous fight, and despite heavy casualties, survived as a unit. This was their first major encounter in battle since arriving in Korea and it would turn out to be a very costly one; with nearly one quarter of their Marines killed or wounded. The bloody battle at Sudaemun Prison had ended. However, this was only the first of many wounds the men from “Dog” Company would be licking.

Five days after the battle at Sudaemun Prison, Dog Company engaged in an overwhelming victory in the battle at Uijongbu, 18 miles northeast of Seoul. They then embarked on ship again at Inchon, for their subsequent landing at Wonson, North Korea in late October. Upon landing at Wonson, Dog Company made steady advances north to the cities of Hamhung, and Sudong. It was on November second in Sudong that the 7th Marines made history by being the first Marine unit to engage the Chinese Communist Forces since the onset of the Korean War. It was a ferocious battle that inflicted over 1,500 casualties on the 124th Chinese Communist Division. A humiliating defeat that prompted the Chinese Communist Forces to take revenge in the following weeks in what would become to be known as the infamous Chosin Reservoir Campaign.

The Main Supply Route (MSR) for the First Marine Division, stretching some 78 miles from the seaport town of Hungnam to Yudam-ni, North Korea was of critical tactical importance. Following the victory at Sudong, Dog Company along with the Fifth Marines, made their way to the most northern tip of this supply route along the Chosin Reservoir. Unbeknown at the time, the Chinese Communist Forces were massing in unimaginable numbers for their infiltration into North Korea with one objective in mind: to completely annihilate the First Marine Division and leave no Marine alive. The Chinese Ninth Army Group, consisting of five field armies of over 120,000 troops was the weapon of choice in accomplishing this destructive objective. Thus, the start of the Chosin Reservoir Campaign had begun.

 

Main Supply Route and section of the Chosin Reservoir Evacuation route for the 1st Marine Division.

 

During operations in Yudam-ni, west of the Chosin Reservoir, Dog Company set up a defensive perimeter on hill 1240 as increasing reports from patrols indicated Chinese Communist Forces were in the area. On the evening of 25 November, over 180,000 Chinese troops broke through the U.S. Eighth Army's line to the east, while 120,000 additional Chinese troops envelop the First Marine Division at the Main Supply Route. As they prepared for the inevitable, Dog Company came under heavy attack just after midnight on 27 November. The men from “Dog” courageously fought for their lives and suffered incredible losses as they were forced to withdraw from the hill.

Private First Class Tom Cassis, assigned to the machine gun section describes the events in taking hill 1240: “The temperatures were bitter cold, ranging from –30 to –40 degrees Fahrenheit. We were heavily outnumbered and began taking large numbers of dead and wounded. After getting the order to withdraw from the hill I remembered getting hit in the arm with an enemy round that hit me so hard it literally twirled me around in a circle. I must have made the world record for the 400-yard dash in shoepacks and parka after that as I finally arrived at our withdraw point at the base of the hill.”

By the time Cassis made it to the aid station he would have to wait his turn to be treated, as the corpsmen were completely overwhelmed with casualties. Tom Cassis, now a retired lawyer who resides in Washington, kept the enemy .45 caliber round that passed through his canteen and caused considerable soft tissue damage to his left arm.

No sooner had they recovered from their losses and treated the wounded from hill 1240, the Marines of Dog Company were ordered to re-take the hill again the following day. With an available strength of only 20 men against an enemy strength of roughly two battalions, the Marines miraculously retook the hill as reinforcements from the Fifth Marines arrived. By the time Dog Company arrived to Hungnam, North Korea in mid December 1950, following the Chosin Reservoir withdrawal they had suffered: 50 killed in action, 128 wounded in battle, and 50 non-battle injuries mostly from frostbite. With the original company strength of just over 200, the men of Dog Company, Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division paved their way in blood as they again struggled to survive as a unit and establish themselves as a key element in the proud history of the United States Marine Corps.

The latter part of December 1950 was fairly uneventful for Dog Company as they arrived in Masan (known as the “bean patch”), just outside of Pusan, South Korea by way of ship from the Chosin area. Without an officer to lead them, only 16 enlisted men remained after their horrific ordeal on hill 1240, and subsequent withdraw from the Chosin Reservoir. While in Masan, they received new Marines from the Third and Fourth Replacement Drafts, cleaned their weapons, and conducted training. This down time would be bittersweet however, as they received the order to move out again in early January 1951 to the surrounding areas of P'ohang, South Korea.

Operation “Gorilla Hunt”, a mission to pursue trapped North Korean Soldiers from the earlier campaign in Seoul had recently commenced. The men of Dog Company, like warrior nomads in a wasteland, would venture into unknown territory, in search of an elusive enemy. Although early encounters with the North Korean forces were reported in large numbers, only minimal contact was made in the following weeks as they made the treacherous trip north by way of truck and foot to the outskirts of H'ongch'on, South Korea. During this period, they experienced fierce artillery attacks to their positions, nearly escaped with their lives as a flash flood threatened to wash them away while they were bivouacked near a dry riverbed, and again encountered heavy enemy resistance in early March 1951.

Division Special Order #69-51, dated March 6, 1951 directed Hospitalman Richard DeWert to detach from Headquarters and Service Company, First Medical Battalion, and report to Commanding Officer, Seventh Marine Regiment for duty. Richard had finally received the news he so willingly pursued, his request to join the Marines on the front lines had been granted. As Richard got his things in order for his arrival to Dog Company, Third Platoon, Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, his first thoughts were of those Marines he would soon be a part of as he pleaded and bartered within the First Medical Battalion to obtain extra supplies to include brand name Band-Aids® and aspirin, a very rare commodity at this time. As the messenger of compassion and mercy, Richard mentally and physically prepared himself for the monumental task that lay ahead.

Brisk temperatures crept through the valley floor and canyon, while fog gradually gave way to patches of blue sky. Thundering artillery pounded several hillsides in the distance as reconnaissance jets passed overhead to mark enemy positions for the advancing forces on the ground. Operation “Ripper”, a mission to inflict as many casualties as possible on the Chinese Communist Forces to keep them off balance and prevent a counter-attack was scheduled to kick off the following day. Meanwhile, Dog Company prepared their men for offensive maneuvers just north of Hoengsong, South Korea at the Kunsamma Pass, when a jeep suddenly pulled up to company headquarters.

With thick brown hair, a medium build, and a baby face that permeated innocence, Richard briefly glanced around, stepped out of the jeep and grabbed his medical bag and a large round wicker basket from the back seat. As he proceeded to the Company Command Post he was given his field equipment, C-rations, and directions to Third Platoon, about a half mile down the road. While he made his approach to Third Platoon, weighted down by his gear and equipment, he reported in to the Platoon Commander, a First Lieutenant Richard Humphreys. “There he was, carrying this large wicker basket overflowing with medical gear and medications. I'm used to seeing corpsman check in with a sea-bag loaded with personal gear and other items, but not him. When I asked him how he was going to carry all of that stuff he replied, ‘It's my duty sir, I have to carry it'. Lieutenant Humphreys knew right away that he was dealing with a special breed of corpsman; “a corpsman of Marines in every way”. Richard Humphreys, a Silver Star and Bronze Star with combat “V” recipient; and veteran of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, continued a long and prestigious career in the Marine Corps until his retirement at the rank of Colonel in 1970.

As Dog Company proceeded north, Richard DeWert quickly integrated with the third platoon as they conducted patrols and sought out enemy positions. Building rapport with his Marines and settling into a routine that consisted mostly of long marches with 85 pounds on his back, digging defensive fighting holes, and frequent medical calls to members in the platoon, oftentimes under heavy fire. Richard, like countless corpsmen before him, was intimately aware that the lives of each of his Marines was entrusted in his care. He also knew that ultimately his duty was to risk his life in order to save the lives of others. An epiphany that many battlefield corpsmen quickly come to terms with.

On March 7, one day after Richard arrived to the company, they proceeded north of Hoengsong, South Korea. It was here that the men of Dog Company witnessed horrors beyond imagination as they discovered the aftermath of a Chinese and North Korean ambush to elements of an Army Convoy. Although the onslaught had occurred 3 weeks earlier, it was a battle site eerily preserved, as bodies remained frozen where they died. Attached to this convoy were units from the U.S. Army's 38th Infantry Regiment, 503rd Field Artillery Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Battalion, and an attachment from the Dutch Field Artillery Battalion.

“Bodies were everywhere, most of them had been stripped of their clothing and down to their underwear before being shot”
, stated Fred Frankville, a Private First Class and rifleman assigned to third platoon. “There were literally hundreds of bodies strewn about, some in jeeps, others with their weapons still clinched in their hands, all frozen in time. Seeing their final expressions captured on their faces, like figures in a wax museum, just didn't appear to be real at first. It was a grisly sight I and others will never forget”, said Frankville.

Tom Cassis recalled his account of what he saw on this day by saying: “There were vehicles overturned and on their sides, some were still burning and giving off smoke. I remember seeing an awful lot of dead, at least 50 or 100 at first glance. What stuck in my mind the most was seeing two Chinese in front of us that had been run over by a tank, the track marks could still be seen on their backs as they were flattened to a height of maybe two inches.” This area, known as “Massacre Valley” resulted in a death toll of over 700 Americans, and only one survivor for the Dutch. This was the heaviest loss for any Dutch Battalion in their long history of warfare, and the highest concentration of American dead from a single location in the Korean War.

By March 11, 1951, Dog Company moved further north of Hoengsong, while Operation “Ripper” gained momentum. They had encountered slight opposition early that morning as one Marine received a life-threatening wound to the head. Richard quickly jumped into action, stabilized the Marine, and continued with the platoon as they set up flank security and continued on small patrols. At around midnight, Third Platoon received a desperate call for help over the radio from First Platoon who was pinned down from heavy fire at the hands of Chinese Aggressors.

As the Third Platoon advanced in an effort to reinforce the troubled First Platoon, Chinese grenadiers viscously attacked their position. “Explosions erupted everywhere as shrapnel pierced through the surrounding trees, hurling splinters and fragments of earth in every direction. When the smoke cleared, four Marines including myself were severely wounded. I counted 11 or 12 grenades thrown at us before I got hit”, stated Jack Larson, a Sergeant, Rifleman, and Squad Leader assigned to third platoon at the time. “Richard was frantic as he patched everyone up and moved through incoming fire with little regard for his own safety. That's about the time I got injured”, Larson said. Although severely wounded himself and losing blood at an alarming rate, Sergeant Larson refused initial treatment, continued a ferocious fight with the enemy, and saved the company from certain destruction. He was awarded the Navy Cross, the Navy and Marine Corps' second highest military award for his heroic actions on this day.

Running on adrenaline, Richard wouldn't have time to immediately reflect on what had just happened, while his platoon received 4 casualties, the rest of the company suffered 2 killed in action, and 7 others critically wounded. The priority for him was to evacuate the wounded and quickly get back with the platoon where he was needed.

Almost as quickly as it had started, the offensive at Hoengson had ended. By March 15, Dog Company was placed in reserve in anticipation of getting their company back up to strength. Marines from the 6th Replacement Draft gradually filtered in during this time while much needed supplies, and more importantly, mail call reinvigorated the spirits of the war battered and exhausted Marines. Only sporadic encounters with the enemy were made on isolated patrols around their perimeter as they received a well-deserved break, their first break in the rear since they left the “Bean Patch” in early January.

They caught up on writing letters to friends and loved ones, recycled old magazines that must have been read by each of them at least ten times, and cooked C-Rations around squad fires while engaging in familiar conversation. Most of the dialogue consisted of the types of American foods they would sink their teeth in to when they returned home, the anticipation of reunions with girl friends, wives and their children, and the occasional heated topic of who had the best car. Richard wouldn't have much time to relax however, as he was busy making his rounds and treating the minor ailments that couldn't receive attention during the heat of combat and constant movements.

“Richard DeWert was a true professional and was deeply compassionate”, stated Fred Frankville, recalling how Richard provided aid to him for a severe headache during their short break in the rear. “He pulled out this bottle of Bayer® aspirin and handed me a couple as he looked me over to make sure I was all right. He carried a lot of brand name medicines in his bag of tricks, and I don't think I need to tell you just how comforting it was to receive a hint of home like that”.

For those Marines that remembered Richard DeWert, his impact was far reaching, for no other corpsman they remember went the extra mile in the fashion he did. As Richard continued to care for his Marines, offering glimpses of hope and cheering up the despondent, the inseparable bond between Marine and corpsman intensified.

It wasn't long before Dog was back up to strength and on the move again. As they resumed the all too familiar routine of digging fighting holes, engaging in firefights with the enemy, and gaining ground, rumors began to surface throughout the company that they will soon be put under control of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division. The 1st Cavalry Division at this time was preparing for operations south of the 38th parallel in efforts to fortify their lines and push the Chinese Communist Forces back north. “I remember when the company received a brief about how the North Korean and Chinese Forces were massing just north of us. That's also about the time we were told that the Seventh Marines were being placed under the 1 st Cavalry Division”, stated Ed Garr, a Private First Class Machine Gunner from third section, assigned to the third platoon. Garr, a veteran of Korea and Vietnam, and recipient of two Bronze Star Medals went on to say: “Shortly after that we spotted a motorcade of jeeps in the distance, only to discover that it was the famous General MacArthur visiting our troops in the field.”

While the men from Dog Company made their way north for their eventual arrival to the 1st Cavalry Division, tension and excitement began to mount with the Marines. The push north meant progress for the United Nations; a small indication that maybe this nightmare would be over soon. Covering ground that had already been covered before, and even more alarming, moving towards the 38th parallel brought back visions of their lurid and narrow escape just months earlier in the Chosin area.

Fighting continued for Dog Company as they made their northward journey, with skirmishes and ambushes to their position at nearly every stretch of the way. “It seemed like a never ending struggle of taking one hill after another. First we attack, then dig in, and then wait for the counter-attack, only to repeat the same process for days on end”, stated Gonzalo Garza, Platoon Sergeant for third platoon. “Richard DeWert was my fox-hole buddy, and let me tell you, he was always on the move providing medical aid to the platoon."

Garza recalled one day in particular as they were preparing fighting holes, the temperature was so cold you could barely penetrate the ground. Richard was going from foxhole to foxhole checking up on everybody as he gradually made it back to Garza who was shaking uncontrollably from the cold. Richard immediately took off his sweater and said "Hey Sarge, why don't you take my sweater, I'm from Massachusetts and I'm used to the cold, you're from Texas and you're not." Garza was deeply touched by Richard's compassion and willingness to make such sacrifices. “We talked quite a bit, mostly about our hometowns, our dreams, and aspirations. He even told me about how he saved a small dog when he was just a kid, and about how he really wanted to become a medical doctor,” said Garza. Gonzalo Garza, a Bronze Star recipient, and veteran of the battle for Okinawa in WWII and Korea, pursued a long career as an educator after leaving the Marine Corps in 1953, earning his Doctorate Degree in philosophy.

By April 1st , Dog Company arrived at their objective point with the 1st Cavalry Division. They received marching orders and operations plans, replenished depleted supplies, and prepared for their move further north. Although this was only a brief break from combat before they were to move out on trucks with the Army, the Marines took full advantage of this time as they consumed hot meals, cleaned up, and caught up on some much needed rest.

Fred Frankville chuckled as he reminisced about the events on that day. “I'll never forget the encounter Richard DeWert and I had with this Army Medic and his buddies. Out of curiosity I asked this medic why he didn't carry a weapon. The medic replied by saying that they weren't allowed to carry them. That's when I said, 'Let me show you our corpsman!' I then called Richard DeWert over. As Richard approached, outfitted like Rambo, with an M-1 Carbine in his hand, and grenades attached to his belt; I could see the medic's eyes quickly widen like saucers. Richard had this half-smile on his face as he and the Medic sized each other up from top to bottom. Not a single word was exchanged between them as Richard then strutted off to his position with the rest of the platoon. There's always been healthy competition among the services, and that will probably never change; seeing Richard's pride in being with us, and our pride in him on that day said a thousand words.”

As Dog Company disembarked from Army vehicles on April 2, they were given the order to seize phase lines
“Dover” and “Troy” in the Chunchon vicinity, just south of the 38th parallel. Once these objectives were completed they were given the additional order to proceed to an area just north of the 38th parallel to capture several hills (objectives 43, 44, and 49) occupied by the 117th Division, 39th Corps of the Chinese Communist Forces. Richard and his platoon ventured in to some of the roughest terrain yet experienced as they overcame ferocious landslides from prevailing rains, nearly unsurpassable roads, and massive flooding. Additional dangers were encountered by the extensive use of land mines by the enemy throughout this area. As third platoon navigated through countless dangers and obstacles on April 2nd and 3rd, their luck ran out on April 4th as they made contact with the enemy and a Marine desperately struggled to hold on to life.

A loud “Boom” and accompanying shockwave violently rustled leaves on the ground. A seismic vibration simultaneously transcended through the ground near several Marines from third platoon as everyone darted for cover. Assuming they were under mortar attack, they quickly established a defensive posture and prepared for further havoc to their position. It wasn't until moments later that “Corpsman Up” was relayed within the platoon and Richard began to edge and crawl his way closer to the wounded. Incoming rounds whizzed overhead, sending a distinctive “snap” and “crack” as they hit several trees.

Nearby, Private First Class Charles Whatley lay helpless, screaming in agony, and bleeding profusely from a blast sustained by tripping a land mine. Sergeant Garza was within feet of PFC Whatley when the tragic event occurred. “What was left of his leg was a mess as he cried out in pain. I don't know what was worse for him, the pain of being wounded or his concern for playing baseball again. I tried to console him and tell him he was going to be alright, but I could tell that he was badly hit.” As Richard inched forward, he carefully removed a large bandage from his bag, opened it with his teeth, and applied pressure to the mangled and nearly severed leg of Whatley. Trying desperately to ease the pain and stop the bleeding, Richard applied a tourniquet to PFC Whatley's upper thigh, administered morphine, and continued treating him for extensive shock.

While Richard continued his life saving attempt, the Marines effectively returned fire and cleared the area of the retreating enemy. Within an hour, the platoon established a landing zone as a helicopter swiftly evacuated their wounded comrade. Although shaken by their encounter, third platoon continued their objective for that day, marching for several more hours until they eventually traversed within feet of the 38th parallel.

Darkness swiftly approached on April 4th as Dog Company set up camp for the evening. Like a well-rehearsed orchestra, the semi synchronized “cling” and “thud” from digging against rock and difficult ground echoed along their position. Only after the foxholes were finished and the defensive perimeter established was the infamous 50 percent watch set. Some got a chance to sleep, while others scrounged what they could to eat. Richard uneasily stirred as he tried to clear his mind of the days' events. Unable to sleep, he conducted visits to each foxhole; and with the care of a parent tucking a child in for the night, he offered reassuring encouragement and friendly conversation to each of his Marines. As he later retired in to his own sleeping bag for the evening, comforted by his thoughts and efforts at being a source of strength to his brothers, he instantly fell asleep. A peaceful and sound slumber, as Richard's final hours slowly ticked away.

Dense fog tightly blanketed the ground as it slowly captured hints of first daylight. Richard, awakened by the sound of voices, sat up, rubbed his eyes, and took in his surroundings. With visibility limited to just a few feet, he quickly glanced around and blinked in succession from the cold mist deflecting off his face. As he wiped moisture from his watch and moved it back and forth to catch a glimpse of the time, he could see that it was just past five thirty in the morning. “Everybody up and on your feet, we're moving out in one hour”, came a voice from behind him. Richard slowly stood up, stretched, and took in a wide yawn. The aroma of instant coffee and burning pinecones could be detected as the sound of mess gear clattered a short distance away. He then put on his boots, drank from his canteen, and assembled his equipment for their movement out. As he looked over to Sergeant Garza who was also busy preparing his gear, he asked him, “Sarge, do you wonder if we'll ever make it out of here?”

By 0630 Dog Company and sister unit Easy Company, Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, set off on foot, with heavy tanks in support for their joint mission in seizing objective point 43. Within an hour they crossed the 38th parallel and entered North Korea for the first time since their hasty departure in December. Temperatures gradually increased as fog slowly lifted from much of the valley floor. As the Marines continued north, their positions came under heavy attack from 60-millimeter mortar shells. Round after round poured down on their positions as they took cover and attempted to direct returning fire to the enemy.

Within minutes, the enemy pulled back and disappeared in to the distance, leaving a wake of confusion from their attack. With damage to some tanks and equipment, and minimal casualties, the Marines quickly recovered and regrouped for their advance to objective 43, an unassuming hill stretching some 439 feet high. A hill blanketed with thick vegetation, sharp inclines, and treacherous ledges. What the Marines didn't know at this time was how well organized, pre-battle defensive bunkers were emplaced near the top of this hill; and how the Chinese laid in wait for the Marines' arrival.

A major offensive, the Seventh Marine Regiment, under the 1st Cavalry Division, had units on the attack on seven different hills (objectives 43 through 49) throughout a three and a half mile radius. While fighter jets screamed overhead, dropping their deadly cargo of Napalm, 500 pound bombs, and rockets to positions east and north of objective 43; Dog and Easy Companies slowly made their ascent up the hill. Finding two narrow fingers that paralleled one another, Dog Company took the finger to the South, while Easy Company took the finger to the west at about 9 a.m. Within visual and shouting distance from each other, Dog and Easy made steady progress in their ascent up these two natural fingers in the mountain.

After nearly an hour of climbing through patchy fog, Easy and Dog Company arrived to a clearing about three quarters of the way up when Easy Company began taking fire. A bunker containing two machine gun positions was cleverly emplaced in the middle of both fingers, enabling the Chinese to fire on both flanks at the same time. Hearing that Easy Company was under fire, Dog Company, third platoon, increased their pace as they traversed a steep ledge about 20 feet wide and to the east of Easy Company. Suddenly and without warning, third platoon began taking machine gun fire from the same enemy bunker. “The platoon was trapped under a ledge as machine gun fire opened up from above. Those that were on point and went in to the clearing were the ones that got hit with enemy fire,” stated Fred Frankville.

As three Marines on point position from third platoon laid severely wounded, one after each other, Richard shifted his medical gear to his side and prepared for his dash out to those in need. Aware of Richard's intentions, Sergeant Garza grabbed Richard by the arm and said, “Doc, don't go out there, wait until its time, wait until it's clear!” Richard on the other hand, tormented by the fate of his wounded Marines, looked at Sergeant Garza, and said, “You do your job, and I'll do mine”, and quickly moved in to the open against a barrage of incoming fire.

 

Hill and objective point 430 today.

 

As bullets kicked up dirt in front of him, Richard dove for the ground as he arrived at the position of Private First Class Anthony Falatach, a rifleman from third platoon. Richard grabbed him by the armpits, positioned him between his legs, and kicked his way to safety as he maneuvered around on his backside. Exhausted and out of breath, Richard was hit in the leg by a blast of enemy fire just as he made it to cover with his wounded Marine. Despite excruciating pain to his leg, Richard looked up and saw that another Marine also laid critically wounded and in need of help. As Richard dodged through a hail of machine gun fire for the second time he quickly arrived to the location of Corporal Donald Sly, grabbed him by the collar, and swiftly dragged him to safety.

With no time to rest, Richard made yet another daring rescue attempt as he crawled and slivered to the position of Private First Class Richard Durham, a rifleman from third platoon. As Richard made his approach to his helpless comrade, he received a devastating wound to his right shoulder by an enemy bullet, ripping through his flesh and shattering his bones. With rapid blood loss, and under intense pain, Richard continued moving toward PFC Durhams' position only to realize that he had been shot through the head and killed instantly. Undaunted by his own condition, Richard pulled PFC Durham's body out of the line of fire.

Unaware that an additional enemy bunker containing numerous Chinese infantrymen was located just above the machine gun bunker; third platoon began taking sporadic fire from several snipers and sharpshooters above their position. Corporal Keith Ester, a rifleman and squad leader for third squad was positioned to the right of his men when he was shot through the knee by a Chinese Sniper. Richard, in agony and with tear-filled eyes, looked over to Corporal Ester as he watched him fall to the ground about 15 yards away. Weak from blood loss, and refusing to submit to aid for his own wounds, Richard mustered up all the strength he could for his final selfless act.

 

PFC Fred Frankville, 1950.

 

Fred Frankville witnessed Richard's final actions, and describes the events on that day: “It was pretty foggy as we made our way up the hill. As I advanced up the line and got a clear field of vision, the fog all of a sudden lifted, almost like a dream. That was when I saw Richard DeWert run out to Corporal Ester. As Richard leaned over him to provide aid he was mortally wounded by a burst of enemy machine gun fire and fell lifeless on top of Corporal Ester.” Having seen the tragic death of his corpsman, and realizing that Corporal Ester was still alive, Fred Frankville instinctively navigated his way to the right flank and out of the field of fire from the machine gun bunker. He then made a daring sprint towards the bunker, pointed the muzzle of his M-1 Garand through the opening and fired a full clip of 8 rounds at point blank range, neutralizing the enemy.

After suppressing the enemy, Frankville pulled Keith Ester behind a ledge and in to safety. “Seeing Richard DeWert's bravery and selfless actions was the turning point because it inspired us to move against the enemy regardless of the odds. Who knows what would have happened to us if Richard DeWert had not gone out there and did what he did; we were pinned down and clearly at the mercy of the Chinese aggressors,” stated Frankville.

Shortly afterwards Easy Company radioed their thanks to Dog Company for saving their hides, as they were helplessly pinned down as well. PFC Frankville was awarded the Silver Star for his actions during this battle; however, he and others from third platoon were compelled to give their accounts of Richard's heroic actions to others in hopes that he would be recognized for his gallant bravery and the ultimate sacrifice so freely given.

As Private First Class Chuck Curley and Corporal Art Rud carried Richard DeWert's bloody body off the hill, it was a solemn time of reflection and awe at how one man possessed such bravery, courage, compassion, and willingness to sacrifice himself for others. As water sprayed out of Richard's canteen on their way down from the numerous bullet holes, the men of Dog Company paid respect to their fallen corpsman, as many rendered a salute and farewell to their corpsman. Sergeant Gonzalo Garza had this to say as we closed out his interview recently: “You know, I never lost one single person from my platoon from mid-February until that tragic day on April 5th . I am honored to have been by Richard's side for so many days, and equally honored to have called him “Doc.”

Corporal Keith Ester was the only wounded member Richard DeWert risked his life to save that actually lived to tell about it. In a recent interview with Keith Ester, he commented on Richard DeWert: “He was a very nice kid, although we didn't talk a whole lot, and he wasn't with the company for very long, It was obvious that he really cared about his duty and those around him. The Corpsman has always been a central figure with the Marine Corps, hearing that Richard DeWert was so appropriately honored after his death brought both closure and a great deal of satisfaction to many of us.” Keith Ester is currently a retired teacher and school administrator out of Denver, Colorado.

One day after Richard DeWert's untimely death, third platoon received a new platoon commander, Second Lieutenant Lealon Wimpee, while Dog Company also received a new Company Commander, Captain Alvin Mackin. As PFC Frankville and other members from third platoon approached Lieutenant Wimpee and Captain Mackin and provided detailed accounts of Richard DeWert's extraordinary heroism, it became clear and obvious to them that it was most worthy of writing up and submitting for the nations highest military award, the Medal of Honor.

 

Richard D. DeWert.

 

Later that next year, Richard David DeWert was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, signed by President Harry S. Truman.

On November 19, 1983, the Guided Missile Frigate USS DeWert (FFG 45) was christened in Bath, Maine, and was the first ship to bear his name. Richard DeWert is also a common household name in Taunton, Massachusetts, as streets, a library, a VFW hall, and even a housing development proudly shared his name. Most recently, in 2004, two Naval Medical Clinics, one at Newport, Rhode Island, and another at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California held dedication ceremonies and re-named their facilities in honor of Richard DeWert.

You can learn a lot from the horrors of war. From those that endured it, and those that gave the ultimate sacrifice. About compassion, emotion, sadness and loss. About triumph, determination, bravery, and sorrow. About just how precious life is; the priceless gift that it is, and the ultimate expression of love and human kindness in giving that life so that others may live. One can't help but wonder in amazement at the heroic actions of Hospitalman Richard DeWert, a lonely kid full of dreams from Taunton, Massachusetts.

His legacy lives on in each American today, a testament in the cost for freedom and our continued way of life. I am moved by those Marines that served with Richard DeWert; with heroes abound, Dog Company was a unique band of brothers that to this day maintains close ties among its members. Without the persistence of Marines like Fred Frankville, Lealon Wimpee, and Alvin Mackin in seeing that Richard was appropriately recognized and honored for his selfless actions, this story wouldn't have been possible. There is no greater gift than to lay down your life for your fellow man. Richard DeWert gave the ultimate sacrifice and paid the ultimate price for his country and the Marines he served with.

It has been my distinct honor to put in to words the human condition shared by Richard and his Marines. To paint a picture of those that lived, cried, fought, and died in a war long forgotten. My hat is off to all Americans that have risked their lives in the name of freedom and democracy around the globe. It is with great humility and respect that I end this story by leaving you with a letter from Mrs. Albertina Roy addressed to Captain Alvin Mackin on August 9, 1951 following Richard DeWert's untimely death.

Dear Captain Mackin,

Receiving your letter was most comforting. Knowing that Richard died so honorably eases, somewhat, the pain that will always remain in our hearts. Although we are not his natural parents, being childless, we loved him more than words can describe. He was brought up under atrocious conditions, by a mother who was only concerned about herself.

Richard had to find out for himself from earliest childhood. He could have gone just as bad as he was good, but God in his infinite wisdom gave him a pure heart. He came to us, we thought at the time, quite by accident, but now we know different. God sent him to us so that we could shower him with the love and affection that he never received in early childhood and he in turn returned that love and affection on us, that we also never received from a child of our own.

We were never able to adopt him legally as his mother would never relinquish him. His and our big aim in life was for him to become twenty-one, so that we could adopt him legally. It was not his will that it be so, however we will never forget Richard's memory and will always carry it in our hearts. Knowing that you are burdened with many and tedious duties, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for taking the time to write us such a comforting letter.

 Respectfully Yours,
Mrs. Albertina Roy

Published with the permission of Fred E. Kasper
© 2004 Fred E. Kasper all rights reserved

 

About the author: Fred Kasper is a Senior Chief Corpsman in the United States Navy. He has been in the service for over 21 years, with 13 of those years serving with Marine Corps units as their “Doc”. Some highlights of his career include serving on two Presidential POW/MIA recovery missions to Vietnam and North Korea, and more recently, a one year tour in Iraq. An aspiring writer, he hopes to complete a book on Richard DeWert and Dog Company 2/7 in the next year. In April 2009 Fred Kasper was promoted to Master Chief Petty Officer, the
highest enlisted rank in the U. S. Navy.



Page published Apr. 8, 2009