Army Master Sgt. Ernest R. Kouma was credited with killing an astonishing 250 enemy soldiers to protect retreating U.S. infantrymen during an hours-long battle at the beginning of the Korean War. It’s no surprise that his efforts earned him the Medal of Honor.
Kouma was born Nov. 23, 1919, in Dwight, Nebraska, and grew up on a family farm. In 1940, as war was building in Europe, he decided to enlist in the Army.
Kouma served with the 9th Infantry Division during World War II. He fought his way across Germany and helped relieve the people of Bastone, Belgium, after a long siege during the famed Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45.
After the war, he served as part of the occupation force in South Korea and Japan. But shortly after the Korean War began in the summer of 1950, Kouma was again sent to the front lines as an M26 Pershing tank commander of Company A, 72nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division.
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Kouma’s unit was part of the defensive perimeter around the port city of Pusan along the Naktong River. Near midnight on Aug. 31, 1950, about 500 enemy troops crossed the river and launched an attack against infantry units the tanks were supporting.
The infantry units were ordered to withdraw, and Kouma’s armored unit was tasked with covering them until another defensive position could be set up. But the enemy’s assault was heavy, and it overran two tanks, destroyed another and forced a fourth to withdraw.
That’s when Kouma realized his tank was the only one left to defend the fleeing infantry units. His company desperately needed to hold their ground.
Kouma ordered his crew to fire on the attackers, fighting them off repeatedly throughout the night. During one assault, insurgents surrounded Kouma’s tank, so he jumped from the armored turret despite a hail of gunfire coming at him. He made it to the .50-caliber machine gun mounted on the rear deck of the tank and fired at point-blank range into the enemy. After the machine gun ran out of ammunition, he shot his pistol and threw grenades to keep them off the tank.
For nine hours, Kouma’s tank unit battled the enemy nonstop at close range until they were finally forced to move to safety, withdrawing through eight miles of hostile territory. The whole journey, Kouma kept firing and was able to take out three hostile machine gun positions.
During the retreat, Kouma injured numerous insurgents and killed an estimated 250 enemy soldiers. It was an intense display of heroics that allowed the infantry to get to safety and reestablish their defensive positions.
Kouma was injured during the ordeal, but once he rejoined his company, he tried to resupply the tank and get back to the battle. His superiors made him get medical treatment, and his request to return to the front lines was again shot down.
A few days later, Kouma returned to his unit. He was promoted to master sergeant and evacuated back to the U.S.
His leadership, heroism and intense devotion to the mission first led to the Distinguished Service Cross being awarded to him. That was quickly upgraded, however, to the Medal of Honor. He was one of the first men to receive it for actions taken in Korea and received it during a ceremony held by President Harry S. Truman on May 10, 1951.
After the war, the distinguished soldier remained in the Army and served as a recruiter, a tank gunnery instructor and a tank commander, but he never again saw combat. He retired in 1971 after 31 years of service and went on to work as a game warden at Fort Knox.
Kouma lived a quiet life in McDaniels, Kentucky, until his death on Dec. 19, 1993. He is the only Medal of Honor recipient buried in Fort Knox Cemetery.
Kouma received many honors after leaving the service. The 194th Brigade Dining Facility at Fort Benning, Georgia, is named in his honor. In 2016, just outside of Fort Knox, officials in Radcliff, Kentucky, renamed a road Ernest R. Kouma Boulevard in his memory.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
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