Ernie West, a bona fide war hero who fought in Korea with valor so exceptional that he was singled out for the nation’s highest military honor, died Saturday. He was 89.
West was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1954 one year after he rescued several other wounded soldiers under heavy fire that wounded him and ultimately cost him one eye.
“The nation, the state and the citizens of Greenup County lost a true American hero,” said Tom Clay, who is part of a Medal of Honor committee in West’s home county. “A man who loved his family and his community. A man who would talk more about his fishing adventures at Dale Hollow than recalling his heroic actions of the Korean war. An average Joe that faced hell and said, ‘My name is Ernie West.’’’
West was never one to talk about his heroic actions because he never considered himself a hero. His citation tells a different story though.
As a young private, during the Korean War, West accompanied his squad of eight other soldiers who had volunteered to locate an enemy outpost. As the squad neared its objective, the patrol was ambushed by North Koreans who were located atop a hill. Grenades were rolling down the hill toward the Americans, and just as West realized one had rolled between his legs, it exploded behind him, wounding his lieutenant.
Seeing that his squad commander was unconscious, West assumed leadership of the squad and ordered the others to withdraw. West personally carried the lieutenant to safety, killing three of the enemy with rifle fire in the process. Although he sustained a shrapnel wound to his left eye, West returned to the battlefield and evacuated two other wounded comrades, putting up his own cover with small arms fire.
His eye was eventually removed due to the extensive damage.
“They would have done it for me,” West said in a 2009 interview with the Fort Knox newspaper, The Turrent. “I’m sure of that. We never did leave anybody behind-we called it brotherhood back in the '50s."
One of the reasons for the brotherhood, West said, was his upbringing.
“I was raised with 125 brothers,” he said. “I thought of them as brothers and called them brothers. I was raised in the Methodist (Children's) Home in Versailles (Ky., near Lexington). We all stuck together. We thought we were brothers and still think that way, I guess.”
State Sen. Robin Webb, a friend of West's daughter, Amy West Hogsten, and the rest of the family, offered her condolences.
"'Conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.' The highest honor is awarded for the aforestated," Webb said. "Ernest West exemplified those qualities and our native son was a hero of mine. More importantly, he was my longtime friend and my prayers and love go to Amy and the rest of the family. Our region and our nation have lost an icon of bravery, patriotism, service, freedom and friendship."
West, who was from Wurtland in northeastern Kentucky, was born in September 1931. He is one of two men from Greenup County who received the Medal of Honor. The other was the late John “Jack” Collier, who was from Worthington. Collier was awarded the medal posthumously for jumping on a grenade to shield nearby men.
West and Collier lived about a mile apart and both worked for the railroad before being drafted into the Army. They were two of seven Korean War veterans from Kentucky to received the Medal of Honor.
After leaving the Army in 1953, West returned to his previous job with the C&O railroad. However, the railroad didn’t feel obligated to rehire him because of his disability.
After a phone call to the Veterans Administration, the railroad did rehire West, although neither party knew then he would be a Medal of Honor recipient.
That didn’t come until 1954 and West always said he never wanted the medal.
"I told them I didn't want it," West said in interviews. "I thought if one was going to get a medal, everybody ought to have one. We all went, we all served. If you give one, you ought to give one to everybody. That's the way I feel about it, but they don't."
The first medal was awarded in 1863, Clay said. The medal has been awarded about 3,500 times since then, he said.
“The average citizen doesn’t know what these guys went through,” Clay during a ceremony last month.