Cornelius H. Charlton

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Cornelius H. Charlton
Cornelius Charlton.jpg
Nickname(s) "Connie"
Born July 24, 1929
East Gulf, West Virginia, United States
Died June 2, 1951 (aged 21)
near Chipo-ri, Korea
Place of burial Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia United States
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1946 - 1951
Rank Sergeant
Service number 12265495[1]
Unit 24th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division
Battles/wars Korean War
Awards Medal of Honor
Purple Heart

Cornelius H. Charlton (July 24, 1929 – June 2, 1951) was a soldier in the United States Army during the Korean War. Sergeant Charlton posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions near Chipo-ri, South Korea on June 2, 1951.

Born to a coal mining family in West Virginia in 1929, Charlton moved to The Bronx in New York City during World War II. Enlisting out of high school in 1946, Charlton served first in occupied Germany, then occupied Japan in administrative duties before requesting transfer to the front. An African American, Charlton was transferred to the segregated 24th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division fighting in the Korean War. During a battle for Hill 543 near the village of Chipo-ri, Charlton took command of his platoon after its commanding officer was injured, leading it on three successive assaults of the hill. Charlton continued to lead the attack despite mortal wounds until Chinese troops occupying it were destroyed, saving his platoon. For these actions, Charlton was awarded the medal.

In the following years, Charlton was honored numerous times, but was controversially not given a spot in Arlington National Cemetery, which his family claimed was due to racial discrimination. The controversy attracted national attention before Charlton was finally reburied in Arlington in 2008.

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Cornelius H. Charlton was born in East Gulf, West Virginia on July 24, 1929. He was the eighth of 17 children born to Van Charlton, a coal miner, and Clara (née Thompson) Charlton, a housewife.[2] Cornelius briefly moved to Coalwood, West Virginia in 1940 to live with his brother, Arthur.[3] In 1944, the family moved to The Bronx in New York City, New York as Van Charlton became the superintendent of an apartment building. Cornelius Charlton enrolled in James Monroe High School. Friends and family knew Charlton as "Connie."[2]

Charlton indicated a desire to join the United States Army from a young age; in high school he begged his parents to allow him to drop out and enlist, wanting to fight in World War II, but his parents refused.[n 1] When Charlton graduated from high school in 1946, he remained committed to joining the Army, so his parents signed the papers allowing 17-year-old Charlton to enlist.[2]

Military career[edit]

Charlton left for Basic Combat Training in November 1946.[2] As an African American, he entered the Army at a time when it was still segregated. In 1948, US president Harry S. Truman ordered desegregation of the U.S. military with Executive Order 9981. However, many units remained de facto segregated, with African Americans mostly being pooled into service units and non-combat duties. It would be several years before troops were fully integrated.[4]

Upon graduating from basic training, Charlton was assigned to the Allied-occupied Germany, where he served out his whole enlistment. Charlton opted to re-enlist, and his next assignment was with a military engineering battalion at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Maryland.[2]

In 1950, Charlton was assigned to the Occupation of Japan, and was given an administrative job on Okinawa[2] with an engineering group of the Eighth United States Army.[3] However, Charlton indicated a desire to fight in the Korean War, and so he requested transfer to a front line unit in South Korea. He was subsequently assigned to C Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, part of the 25th Infantry Division. The regiment was one of the de facto segregated units, made up almost entirely of African American men led by white officers. From its arrival in September 1950, the regiment had been plagued by poor performance and accusations of cowardice. Division commander Major General William B. Kean had requested the unit be disbanded, finding the regiment "untrustworthy."[2]

Charlton arrived at C Company of the regiment's 1st Battalion in early 1951, and at first was regarded with suspicion by officers and leaders in his unit. A Sergeant, he was made a squad leader in the 3rd Platoon, and quickly impressed his unit's company commander with his natural leadership ability, and soon his squad was considered a model unit. In May 1951, Charlton was made the platoon sergeant and his commander had recommended him for a battlefield commission.[2]

Medal of Honor action[edit]

"He got the rest of the men together, and we started for the top. The enemy had some good emplacements ... we couldn't get to him. Grenades kept coming at us and we were chased back down. Again we tried, but no luck. Sgt. Charlton said he was going to make it this time, and he yelled 'Let's go,' and we started up again. We reached the top this time. I saw the sergeant go over the top and charge a bunker on the other side. He got the gun but was killed by a grenade."

PFC Ronald Holmes, one of Charlton's subordinates, recounting his Medal of Honor action.[5]

In late May and early June 1951, the Eighth Army launched Operation Piledriver, a concentrated effort to push Chinese and North Korean troops further north and out of South Korea. The 25th Infantry Division advanced as part of this operation.[2] The 24th Infantry saw a slow advance during this operation, attempting to advance on Kumwha but encountering strong resistance. On July 1, the 2nd Battalion, 24th Infantry took heavy casualties and was forced to withdraw to reserve positions, and the 1st and 3rd Battalions moved up to continue the advance.[6]

On June 2, C Company moved to capture Hill 543 near the village of Chipo-ri.[n 2] The hill was protected by heavily entrenched Chinese infantry as well as mortars at the top of the hill. During their first attempt to advance up the hill, the company took heavy casualties, and the 3rd Platoon leader was mortally wounded. Charlton took command of the platoon and reorganized it for another attack.[2] Heavy fire eventually forced the company back down the hill.[5]

Three times, Charlton led the platoon up the hill, in the face of intense Chinese mortars and infantry fire. In spite of mounting casualties, the platoon made slow progress. Charlton single-handedly destroyed two Chinese positions and killed six Chinese soldiers with rifle fire and grenades. During one advance, Charlton was wounded in the chest, but he refused medical treatment and pushed the company forward.[2] Charlton continued to lead the attack from the front of the platoon, and several times was separated from the unit.[5] Subsequent accounts noted Charlton continued the advance "holding his chest wound with one hand and an M1 carbine with the other."[7]

Under Charlton's leadership, the platoon managed to overcome the Chinese infantry positions, but it spotted a Chinese bunker on the far side of the top of the hill, where the Chinese mortars were firing on them. As recounted by Private First Class Ronald Holmes, one of the men in the platoon, Charlton decided to destroy the bunker, and with his last known words, "Let's go," he urged the platoon forward, charging at the front of the formation ahead of the rest of the soldiers.[5] In one final action, Charlton advanced alone to the top of the hill and the location of the Chinese mortars, firing repeatedly on the emplacement there. The Chinese troops wounded Charlton one final time with a grenade, but he continued firing until the position was destroyed. Charlton subsequently died from the wounds inflicted by the grenade.[8] However, he is credited with saving much of his platoon, which had been under heavy fire from the mortars.[5]

Burial and honors[edit]

Charlton's family meets with Secretary of the Army Frank Pace in 1952, as Charlton is recognized with the Medal of Honor.

Charlton's parents were presented with his Medal of Honor on March 12, 1952 by Secretary of the Army Frank Pace.[8]

In 1952, the US Army renamed its New York-based Ferryboat 84, a ferry boat that traveled to Governors Island in the Upper New York Bay, for Charlton. In September 1954, West Virginia renamed a bridge on the West Virginia Turnpike in honor of Charlton, the Charlton Memorial Bridge on Interstate 77.[8] Charlton was also memorialized in the Bronx, with a park in the Morrisania area being named for Charlton in 1952, and in 1958 several gardens in Van Cortlandt Park in South Bronx were planted in his honor. These gardens are the site of annual Memorial Day gatherings of the local neighborhood where Charlton and other Bronx residents killed in the Korean War are honored. In 1993, a new barracks complex for US Forces Korea in South Korea was also named in Charlton's honor.[9] In 2000, the United States Navy commissioned the USNS Charlton, a Watson-class vehicle cargo ship. Charlton's sister, Fairy M. Papadopoulos, served as the ship's co-sponsor.[8]

There was some controversy over Charlton's burial after his death. In 1951, Charlton was not offered a burial plot in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, a custom which is routinely afforded to all Medal of Honor recipients. The US Army later claimed that this was due to an "administrative error," but Charlton's family believed the omission was due to racial discrimination.[5] Instead, Charlton was buried in Bryant Cemetery, a segregated cemetery in Bramwell, West Virginia in 1951.[3] The military did not offer to rebury Charlton in Arlington until 1989, and the family refused on the grounds that the oversight had been discrimination. Instead, American Legion Post 32 in Beckley offered to bury Charlton in their own cemetery. On March 10, 1989, Charlton was reburied there with full military honors at a ceremony attended by congressmen, several US Army generals, and an honor guard. Of 252 buried there, Charlton was the only African American.[7] The controversy received national coverage when it was written about in the Los Angeles Times.[5] On November 12, 2008, following efforts of other Medal of Honor winners, Charlton was finally reburied in Arlington National Cemetery, where his remains currently reside.[3]

Awards and decorations[edit]

Charlton's awards and decorations include:[1]

A metal device depicting a blue bar with a rifle, in front of a wreath of silver leaves.
A light blue military ribbon with five white stars with five points each. A purple ribbon with white stripes on each end.
Gold star
A blue ribbon with a gold outline.
A yellow circular emblem with a blue "4" overlaid in normal and reverse, with a blue border
Combat Infantryman Badge
Medal of Honor Purple Heart Medal World War II Victory Medal National Defense Service Medal
Korean Service Medal
with service star
United Nations Service Medal for Korea Korean War Service Medal[n 3] Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation
25th Infantry Division SSI-FWTS

Medal of Honor citation[edit]

Charlton was the second of two African Americans to be awarded the medal for the Korean War, the other being William Thompson who had been posthumously honored for actions with the 24th Infantry Regiment during the Battle of Pusan Perimeter.[10] They were the first two African Americans to be nominated for the Medal of Honor since the Spanish-American War, though several World War II veterans were later nominated. The two nominations had seen delays because unit commanders refused to submit their nominations.[11]

Cmoh army.jpg

Sgt. Charlton, a member of Company C, distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy. His platoon was attacking heavily defended hostile positions on commanding ground when the leader was wounded and evacuated. Sgt. Charlton assumed command, rallied the men, and spearheaded the assault against the hill. Personally eliminating 2 hostile positions and killing 6 of the enemy with his rifle fire and grenades, he continued up the slope until the unit suffered heavy casualties and became pinned down. Regrouping the men he led them forward only to be again hurled back by a shower of grenades. Despite a severe chest wound, Sgt. Charlton refused medical attention and led a third daring charge which carried to the crest of the ridge. Observing that the remaining emplacement which had retarded the advance was situated on the reverse slope, he charged it alone, was again hit by a grenade but raked the position with a devastating fire which eliminated it and routed the defenders. The wounds received during his daring exploits resulted in his death but his indomitable courage, superb leadership, and gallant self-sacrifice reflect the highest credit upon himself the infantry, and the military service.[12]


See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The American Battle Monuments Commission states incorrectly that Charlton was a veteran of World War II.
  2. ^ Reef 2010, p. 70 states this was Hill 1147, but other sources do not collaborate this claim.
  3. ^ In 2000 this award was made retroactive to all US military who served in the Korean War.

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Korean War Honor Roll listing:Cornelius H. Charlton entry". American Battle Monuments Commission. Retrieved October 1, 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Reef 2010, p. 70
  3. ^ a b c d Baston, Constance. "Cornelius H. Charlton, 1929-1951". West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Retrieved March 10, 2011. 
  4. ^ Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 27
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 256
  6. ^ Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 255
  7. ^ a b Kinshasa 2006, p. 118
  8. ^ a b c d Reef 2010, p. 71
  9. ^ Mattera, John (June 2, 2005). "Fighting for freedom in a segregated Army". City of New York Parks and Recreation. Retrieved March 10, 2012. 
  10. ^ Ecker 2004, p. 28
  11. ^ Kinshasa 2006, p. 117
  12. ^ Ecker 2004, p. 167

Sources[edit]

 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the United States Army Center of Military History.