Category Archives: This Month in NCO History

This Month in NCO History: Sept. 1, 1950 — Holding the tank at Naktong Bulge


The light fog that enveloped the western shore of the Naktong River near Agok, South Korea, began dissipating at dawn Sept. 1, 1950.

As the sun dispersed the vapor, it revealed a grisly scene — scores of slain North Korean troops along with the lightly damaged remains of an M26 Pershing tank. During a brief lull in the chaos that had occurred for 10 hours, one man emerged from the iron behemoth. It was Sgt. 1st Class Ernest R. Kouma. The leader of a four-vehicle patrol from the 2nd Infantry Division was fatigued and hobbled by wounds inflicted during the firefight. He ambled out of the tank without facing enemy fire for the first time since the previous night. Kouma was placed in a truck and sent for medical treatment. He would go on to find a place in history as a recipient of the nation’s highest military honor.

Kouma was part of A Company, 72nd Tank Battalion when it arrived on the Korean Peninsula with the rest of the 2nd ID in late August 1950. The division moved into line at the Pusan Perimeter, replacing the 24th Infantry Division, where U.S. forces were establishing a defensive line around the city of Pusan in southeast Korea after war broke out June 25. Kouma was part of two infantry squads from A Company that were holding a roadblock with the 9th Infantry Regiment near Agok, a small village at the base of a hill about 300 yards from the Naktong River and at the southern tip of the 2nd ID’s boundary. The Soldiers were situated on a hill overlooking the town. The night of Aug. 31, Kouma took two tanks and two M19 Gun Motor Carriages on a patrol below the ridge line near the site of a ferry that traversed the river.

It was at this spot that the North Korean Army attempted to carry out an offensive to cut off a supply route between Daegu and Pusan. The enemy was unaware that the 2nd ID had relieved the 24th and expected to move over the Naktong River with ease. Behind that assumption a force of about 500 amassed on the side of the river opposite the small American patrol.

Kouma and his fellow Soldiers heard dogs barking in the darkness before a heavy mortar barrage began peppering their side of the river. A thick fog blanketed the river that night and the Americans couldn’t see across the water. When the fog lifted slightly at 10:30 p.m., Kouma was stunned to see that not only were enemy soldiers laying a pontoon bridge across the river, they had nearly completed the task.

He and his gunner opened fire, quickly destroying the bridge. But the battle was on as the North Korean soldiers began crossing the river en masse. After the infantry Soldiers received orders to withdraw to higher ground, Kouma’s opted to remain with his armored unit and act as rearguard for the infantry, according to his Medal of Honor citation. In the small arms fire that ensued, he was wounded in the foot while reloading the tank’s ammunition. Despite his wound, he fought off another North Korean attack across the river with his machine gun.

Kouma’s force was then ambushed by a group of North Koreans dressed in U.S. military uniforms. The impostors ran to Kouma’s position and told him — in excellent English — that a large force was approaching his position. They then hurled grenades at the American vehicles as machine gun and rifle fire began pelting the tank from a bluff overlooking their position. Kouma was wounded in the shoulder during the exchange but he stayed in the fight, beating back repeated North Korean crossings with his machine gun. Several strong attacks came within feet of the tank, but Kouma was able to drive them back despite his wounds. Eventually, the other three vehicles withdrew or were neutralized, with Kouma staying behind. At one point, the tank was surrounded and he had to engage the North Koreans from outside the tank with machine-gun fire at point-blank range. Kouma held the Agok crossing site until 7:30 the following morning with him resorting to using his pistol and grenades to hold off his attackers after the tank’s ammunition was expended.

The tank then withdrew 8 miles to the newly established American lines, destroying three North Korean machine-gun positions along the way. According to his citation, Kouma killed 250 North Korean troops, a number that surpassed the count of highly decorated Army soldier Audie Murphy, who was credited with 240 kills during World War II.

After he reached safety, Kouma attempted to resupply his tank and return to the front lines. Instead, the wounded Soldier was ordered to evacuate for medical treatment. As he was being evacuated, Kouma again requested to return to the front lines, according to his citation.

Kouma returned to duty three days later. Not long after, he was promoted to master sergeant and sent to the United States where he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman on May 19, 1951, during a ceremony at the White House.

Kouma served as a tank gunnery instructor for the U.S. Army Armor School at Fort Knox, Kentucky, for the remainder of the Korean War. He retired from service as a master sergeant in 1971 after a 31-year career, which included stints at Fort Carson, Colorado, and Germany. Kouma originally enlisted in 1940 in his native Dwight, Nebraska, and saw combat in Germany while serving as a tank commander during World War II. He spent his remaining years in McDaniels, Kentucky. Kouma died Dec. 19, 1993, at the age of 74. He was buried at the Fort Knox post cemetery.

  • Compiled by Pablo Villa

This Month in NCO History: Aug. 12, 1881 — Buffalo Soldier repels Apache attacks


1st Sgt. George Jordan was a Buffalo Soldier, part of the famed group of African-American men who served after the Civil War and into the 20th century.

As such, Jordan was not immune to the inequality faced by veterans of the segregated regiments. After his days in the Army, he struggled to find help when his health declined dramatically, being denied admission to the hospital at the now-defunct Fort Robinson in northwest Nebraska.

But on the battlefield, Jordan had few equals. His tenacity and bravery while part of the 9th Cavalry were unmatched. These attributes helped him learn to read and write after growing up illiterate. They helped him earn his sergeant stripes. And they helped him become worthy of the nation’s highest military honor.

Jordan was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1890 for his actions during the Apache Wars. The conflicts between the U.S. Army and the Apache nations were fought in the Southwest between 1849 and 1886. Jordan became a sergeant with K Troop, 9th Cavalry in 1879. At the time, the unit was stationed at Fort Stockton, Texas, and charged with maintaining order between the Rio Grande and Concho River from Fort Clark to El Paso.

In May 1880, Jordan led a 25-man detachment into the New Mexico Military District to protect Fort Tularosa from potential attack. The fort was near the present-day town of Aragon in Catron County, New Mexico. On May 13, Jordan received word that Apaches led by Chief Victorio were laying siege to the town. Jordan implored his troops to reach the area quickly through a forced march. On the morning of May 14, the detachment arrived at Fort Tularosa, finding the town intact. Jordan immediately had his troops build a new fort to protect the townspeople and a new stockade for their animals.

That evening, about 100 of Victorio’s men attacked, sending the townspeople scurrying under volleys of arrows. The town’s occupants found safety inside the newly built fort as the Buffalo Soldiers kept their attackers at bay. The Apaches staggered their attacks against the fort but Jordan successfully reorganized and mustered his men to repel each wave. His Soldiers even made a daring rescue to save all of the town’s cattle. The Apaches eventually relented after suffering several casualties. Jordan didn’t lose a man.

Protecting the town was an impressive feat, but it was what Jordan did 15 months later that cemented his place in the annals of Army history.

Jordan was one of 19 9th Cavalry troops actively pursuing Nana, a Warm Springs Apache chief who had ravaged areas of Texas, Mexico and New Mexico. The Soldiers were led by Capt. Charles Parker and had tracked Nana and his band of Navajos and Chiricahua Apaches into Carrizo Canyon. The canyon lay south of present-day Carrizozo Spring, New Mexico. Though not daunting in size, the outcropping was a treacherous place to come upon as it provided many high, hidden vantage points for an entrenched contingent to fire upon approaching enemies.

It is unclear how many enemy combatants the Buffalo Soldiers faced when they arrived at the canyon Aug. 12, 1881. Parker’s after-action report estimates that the opposing force had 40 guns. The Americans were easily outnumbered but would need to find a way through the canyon to continue the southward pursuit of Nana. That’s when Parker leaned on the battle-tested Jordan. The Buffalo Soldier was charged with taking a few men to head up the right flank along the gradual slope of the canyon to lay down suppressing fire along the opposite slopes as the rest of the group moved through. But the day didn’t go as planned. During their trek through the underbrush, Parker’s group came under fire from the slopes opposite Jordan. Jordan’s group returned fire from the other side, intermittently making the enemy retreat into the surrounding forest only to see them return further up the path to again cut off Parker’s progress.

While Parker was pinned down, the danger intensified for Jordan and his small detachment up above. They encountered hostile forces that had been posted on their side of the crest who had flanked them from the right. Parker rallied his men, positioning them so they were able to stave off their attackers in close combat while also periodically firing across the canyon at enemy forces that were shooting into the canyon below.

It is unknown how long Jordan and his men remained in this position, but his citation states, “he stubbornly held his ground in an extremely exposed position and gallantly forced back a much superior number of the enemy, preventing them from surrounding the command.” The desperate courage of Jordan allowed the unit to retreat back to Carrizozo Spring. The Americans lost one Soldier while inflicting four enemy casualties.

For his actions at Carrizo Canyon as well as Fort Tularosa, Jordan was awarded the Medal of Honor on May 7, 1890. Another NCO present at Carrizo Canyon, 1st Sgt. Thomas Shaw, also received the Medal of Honor later that year for actions during the battle.

Jordan left the Army in 1897. He originally joined in 1880 in Nashville, Tennessee. By the end of his service he had spent a decade as first sergeant of a troop renowned for its efforts against the Apache and Sioux. Jordan lived among other Buffalo Soldier veterans in Crawford, Nebraska, became a successful land owner and made headway in earning the right to vote.

Jordan became ill in the fall of 1904. He was turned away from Fort Robinson’s hospital and told to travel to Washington, D.C., to gain admission to the United States Soldiers’ Home. He never made the trip, as he died Oct. 24. Jordan was buried in Fort McPherson National Cemetery in Maxwell, Nebraska.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa

 

This Month in NCO History: July 20, 1950 — A heroic stand at the Battle of Taejon


From the moment Sgt. George Dalton Libby arrived on the Korean Peninsula with the rest of the 24th Infantry Division on June 30, 1950, the odds were stacked against them. But Libby’s efforts through extreme adversity would earn him the nation’s highest military honor.

The Taro Division was the first American force to reach the Republic of Korea in response to the invasion by the North Korean People’s Army five days earlier. The 24th ID was charged with slowing the advance of the North Korean assault until more U.S. forces could arrive. But that was no easy task.

The division was grossly understrength in the aftermath of post-World War II cutbacks. Its speedy arrival and limited training time in Korea meant the 24th would be, in effect, a strategic bump in the road, meant to hinder the enemy’s advance while 140,000 United Nations troops formed what eventually became the Pusan Perimeter to the south. This translated to setback after setback in the early days of fighting.

Beginning July 14, the 24th ID began a valiant stand against three attacking North Korean divisions during the Battle of Taejon. The North Koreans successfully pushed the Americans back from the Kum River east of the city before beginning an intense urban assault.

On July 20, the remaining elements of the division were attempting to withdraw from the city that once housed its headquarters. Libby was among them as part of C Company, 3rd Engineer Combat Battalion. According to his Medal of Honor citation, he was aboard a truck bound for the town of Taegu when it encountered a North Korean roadblock. Enemy forces ambushed the truck, disabling it. The subsequent barrage of bullets killed or wounded all Soldiers aboard except for Libby, who exited the vehicle and scrambled to a nearby ditch to take cover. As bullets whizzed around him, Libby returned fire, allowing wounded Soldiers to leave the truck and take cover. Twice during the firefight, he exposed himself to enemy fire by running across the road to administer aid to wounded Soldiers and pull them to safety.

Soon after, Libby heard an M-5 Half-track approaching. He flagged down the driver and began helping the wounded aboard. As the vehicle drove off, the enemy directed its fire at the driver. That’s when Libby made the decision that thrust him into history. Realizing that no one aboard would be able to operate the vehicle if the driver was killed, Libby used his own body to shield him. Libby received several bullet wounds in his arm and torso as the massive tractor rumbled away from the scene, his citation states. The vehicle made frequent stops with Libby firing his M2 carbine at enemy forces they encountered as he helped more wounded Soldiers aboard.

Eventually, the tractor came upon another roadblock and was peppered with bullets. Libby, who had ignored requests to receive first aid, once again held himself in front of the driver to shield him. Libby was struck by bullets repeatedly but refused to withdraw as the driver careened through the roadblock and headed toward safety. Libby held his position until he lost consciousness and died. He was 30 years old. His citation states, “Sgt. Libby’s sustained, heroic actions enabled his comrades to reach friendly lines. His dauntless courage and gallant self-sacrifice reflect the highest credit upon himself and uphold the esteemed traditions of the U.S. Army.”

Libby’s body was returned to the United States. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on Aug. 2, 1951.

Libby was born Dec. 4, 1919, in Bridgton, Maine. He served during World War II before his time in Korea. Since his death several buildings and monuments have been named in his honor. Perhaps the most notable is the George D. Libby Bridge, which spans the length of the Imjin River and links North and South Korea.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa

This Month in NCO History: June 19, 1945 — A one-man charge at Ozato, Okinawa


Technical Sgt. John William Meagher was atop a moving tank when he spied a Japanese soldier with a bomb clutched in his hands dashing toward the vehicle’s tread. Meagher didn’t hesitate. He barked the location of one last target to the tank’s gunner before leaping off the iron behemoth to charge at the incoming threat — and into history as a recipient of the nation’s highest military honor.

Meagher was part of E Company, 305th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division, on June 19, 1945, when it ran into Japanese resistance near Ozato, Okinawa. The Statue of Liberty Division had arrived in Okinawa in March to relieve the 96th Infantry Division. By June, it had moved to the southern end of the island near Ozato from its previous position in Shuri. Here, the 77th ID was charged with covering the right flank of the XXIV Corps to seal off cave positions the Japanese used as safe havens.

On that fateful June day, Meagher’s unit was advancing against enemy resistance. According to his Medal of Honor citation, he climbed atop an assault tank to direct its fire against two fortified enemy targets. He did so despite “bullets splattering about him.” Amid the hail of gunfire, Meagher noticed the lone Japanese soldier making a run at the tank. He jumped off the tank and ran toward the enemy with his bayonet extended in front of him.

While Meagher halted the attacker’s charge, he also detonated the explosive device the attacker was carrying and was knocked unconscious by the blast. Meagher came to moments later. Finding his rifle destroyed and enemy fire still whizzing by him, he returned to his tank to grab a weapon. Meagher secured a machine gun and “began a furious one-man assault on the enemy,” his citation states.

He fired from the hip as he moved through a barrage of bullets that ripped through his clothing. Meagher reached the nearest pillbox and killed six enemy soldiers. He sprinted to the next pillbox through more gunfire only to find his weapon out of ammunition. But Meagher was unfazed. According to his citation, “he grasped his empty gun by the barrel and in a violent onslaught killed the crew.”

His single-handed effort silenced heavy enemy resistance and enabled his platoon to take its objective and continue the advance. For his actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor a year later on June 26, 1946.

Meagher was born Dec. 5, 1917, in Jersey City, New Jersey. On March 21, 1942, he was drafted into the Army for service in World War II. The 77th ID was activated four days before his draft date. Meagher trained extensively with the division in the United States before heading for war in the Pacific. They fought in campaigns on Guam and Leyte before joining other forces in the Battle of Okinawa. Two days after Meagher’s gallant one-man charge, the last remnants of Japanese resistance fell.

Meagher left the Army while still a technical sergeant. He died April 14, 1996, at age 78. Meagher was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa

 

This Month in NCO History: May 2, 1968 — A daring rescue that risked everything


Staff Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez had a feeble grip on consciousness when he was pulled out of a rescue helicopter May 2, 1968.

He had just been through a harrowing six-hour firefight, and the danger wasn’t over. Benavidez arrived at his forward operating base just west of Loc Ninh, Vietnam, and was placed on the ground amid other bodies that had been retrieved from a battle just miles beyond the Cambodian border. His eyes were caked in blood and tightly shut. He couldn’t speak as his jaw had been dislodged by the butt of a North Vietnamese rifle. The rigors of combat left him exhausted and motionless. A doctor pronounced him dead.

Benavidez felt a body bag envelop him. The zipper began its raspy trek up his legs. He couldn’t get the doctor’s attention. A fellow Soldier who recognized Benavidez interrupted the doctor, imploring him to check for a heartbeat. The doctor placed his hand on the wounded Soldier’s chest. The slight pressure gurgled forth a bit of fortitude from Benavidez’s waning strength, and he uncorked what he later called “the luckiest shot” he ever took. He spit in the doctor’s face.

Benavidez was rushed into surgery immediately, his ordeal concluded. It was one that involved so many feats of gallantry that nearly 13 years later, before awarding Benavidez — who retired as a master sergeant —the nation’s highest military honor, President Ronald Reagan told White House reporters, “you are going to hear something you would not believe if it were a script.”

Benavidez’s astonishing saga began during his second tour in Vietnam. He was part of Detachment B-56, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces, which began operations in the country in February 1965.

On that fateful March day, the 33-year-old Benavidez was in a church service when he heard frantic radio chatter from the front. When helicopters from the 240th Assault Helicopter Company returned to the FOB’s flight line, their pilots revealed the cause of the frenzied voices. A 12-man reconnaissance team of Green Berets were pinned down by up to 1,500 North Vietnamese infantry soldiers in dense jungle terrain. The enemy had successfully forced the helicopters to abandon an initial rescue effort.

Benavidez immediately acted. He grabbed as many medical supplies as he could and hopped on a helicopter to assist in another extraction attempt. The scene he surveyed from the air was grim — the entire team was wounded, most of them beyond the ability to fight. They were surrounded on all sides by enemy forces that occasionally shot at the chopper Benavidez was riding in. Benavidez directed the pilot to hover over a nearby clearing where he jumped 10 feet into a muggy thicket with the intention of recovering the men.

When he landed on the ground, according to his Medal of Honor citation, Benavidez sprinted 75 meters toward his fellow Soldiers’ position as small arms fire pierced the foliage around him. By the time he reached them, Benavidez was wounded in the leg, face and head. Despite his injuries, he took charge, repositioning the Soldiers and directing their fire to facilitate the landing of a rescue helicopter. Benavidez drew the helicopter in with smoke canisters. When it arrived, he carried and dragged half of the wounded team members to the aircraft. He then provided protective fire by running alongside the helicopter as it moved to pick up the remaining team members. With the enemy’s fire intensifying, he hurried to recover classified documents on the dead team leader.

When he reached the leader’s body, the citation states, Benavidez was severely wounded by enemy fire in the abdomen and grenade fragments in his back. At the same time, the helicopter pilot was mortally wounded, and his aircraft crashed. Although in critical condition because of his multiple wounds, Benavidez secured the classified documents and made his way back to the wreckage, where he pulled his fellow wounded Soldiers out of the overturned aircraft. He positioned the stunned survivors into a defensive perimeter. Under increasing enemy automatic weapons and grenade fire, he moved around the perimeter distributing water and ammunition to the weary men. With the beleaguered group facing a buildup of enemy opposition, Benavidez began calling in tactical air strikes and directed the fire from supporting gunships to suppress the enemy and allow another extraction attempt.

By the time another helicopter was able to land, Benavidez had been directing the fight non-stop for nearly six hours. But the battle still wasn’t finished. In fact, it moved closer. After ferrying one group of wounded Soldiers to the helicopter, Benavidez was returning for the others when he was clubbed from behind by an enemy soldier. In the ensuing hand-to-hand combat, Benavidez sustained bayonet wounds to his head and arms before killing his adversary. Enemy fire intensified as he continued carrying the wounded to safety. He killed two enemy soldiers who rushed the craft before returning a third time to the perimeter of the fallen helicopter to secure classified material and bring in the last of the wounded.

Benavidez mustered the last of his strength to board the helicopter, the last man to leave the battlefield. The aircraft was riddled with bullet holes, covered in blood and without any functioning instruments, but the pilot somehow lifted off. Benavidez lost consciousness as soon as it cleared the jungle canopy.

He was awarded the Medal of Honor on Feb. 24, 1981. According to his citation, his efforts “saved the lives of eight men. His fearless personal leadership, tenacious devotion to duty, and extremely valorous actions in the face of overwhelming odds were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army.”

Benavidez was born in Lindenau near Cuero, Texas. He was orphaned at age 7 after his parents died from tuberculosis. Benavidez and his younger brother, Roger, were raised by a grandfather, uncle and aunt in El Campo, Texas.

He attended school sporadically before dropping out at age 15 to work full time to help support the family. Benavidez enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard in 1952 during the Korean War. In June 1955, he switched to active duty. He completed airborne training and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he eventually became a member of the 5th Special Forces Group. He was sent to Vietnam in 1965 as an advisor. During a patrol, he stepped on a land mine. Doctors told Benavidez he would never walk again. After a year in the hospital — and following an unsanctioned rehabilitation regimen — Benavidez walked out of the facility determined to return to Vietnam to help his fellow Soldiers.

Little did he know he would enter the annals of U.S. Army history.

In 1976, Benavidez retired with the rank of master sergeant. He returned to El Campo with his wife and their three children. He devoted his remaining years to the youth of America, speaking to them about the importance of getting an education. His message was simple: “An education is the key to success. Bad habits and bad company will ruin you.”

Benavidez died Nov. 29, 1998, at age 63. He was buried with full honors at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

— Compiled with Pablo Villa