There are people who try to help, and then there are extraordinary people who selflessly give everything for someone else. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Richard D. DeWert, a hospital corpsman, is the latter, and that’s why he’s our latest Medal of Honor Monday honoree.
DeWert was born on Nov. 17, 1931, in Taunton, Massachusetts. His mother, Evelyn, raised him on her own after her husband left before he was born.
DeWert came of age during World War II. He was eager to serve, so when he became old enough, he enlisted in the Navy in December 1948 when he was only 17. After basic training, he joined the Hospital Corps and worked for about a year at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia.
When he became a hospital corpsman in April 1950, he was eligible to serve alongside Marines in the field. So, when conflict on the Korean Peninsula grew inevitable, DeWert volunteered to join the 1st Medical Battalion of the 1st Marine Division, which deployed to the peninsula in August 1950.
DeWert was still in Korea in early 1951 when he received orders to transfer to the 7th Marine Regiment, a unit known for its major engagements, sustaining more casualties than just about any other Marine unit during the Korean War.
The sergeant in charge of DeWert, Gonzarlo Garza, told the Star-Gazette of Elmira, New York, in 1984, that the corpsman was conscientious and checked on the health of his Marines every night. Garza said one day, when he complained out loud about how cold it was, DeWert, who had been within earshot, took off his sweater.
“He gave it to me so I was warm,” Garza remembered. “He was that kind of guy.”
Some members of DeWert’s platoon said they spent much of the spring of 1951 crossing swollen rivers and climbing steep mountains, pushing against the 117th Division of the Chinese Communists. It was in battle with these men that DeWert gave his life.
On April 5, 1951, DeWert was part of a unit headed to meet a few other friendly units near Kunchon, just across the 38th parallel in North Korea. As they headed up a rocky hillside, they came under fire by an entrenched enemy force.
The first four-man team up the hill was hit by a burst of machine gun fire coming from a trench at the top of the hill. The men were wounded and pinned down. While other members of the unit scattered to find cover, DeWert rushed to the injured men. While he was dragging a seriously wounded Marine to safety, DeWert was shot in the leg, but he refused to stop until the injured man was out of the line of fire. He then went back into the fray, where he managed to drag out yet another injured Marine.
DeWert’s comrades tried to get medical help for his injuries, but he refused. Despite their objections, he went back into the line of fire to continue the rescue. As he tried to get to another injured Marine, he was shot in the shoulder. When he noticed the Marine was dead, he set out for the fourth after hearing a cry for help.
Unfortunately, his luck had run out. As DeWert crossed a field to help that fourth Marine, he was shot by the enemy, killing him instantly. The 19-year-old had been with the battalion for less than a month.
“I remember him saying one day he wanted to be a doctor,” Fred Frankville, a squad leader, told the Star-Gazette in 1984. “I wish I got to know him better.”
On May 27, 1952, Navy Secretary Dan Kimball presented DeWert’s mother with the Medal of Honor on her son’s behalf. The young corpsman was the second sailor to have earned the medal for actions in the Korean campaign.
DeWert was initially buried in a makeshift grave in Korea, but within a few months, his remains were reinterred at Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira, New York. It wasn’t until Memorial Day of 1976 that his grave received an official marker identifying him as a Medal of Honor recipient. In 1987, at his family’s request, DeWert’s grave was moved to the Massachusetts National Cemetery, where he remains interred.
In honor of his bravery and sacrifice, the DeWert Naval Ambulatory Care Center in Newport, Rhode Island, and the USS DeWert were named in his honor. Several other buildings in his Massachusetts hometown also bear his name, as does a street.
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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