DoD News, Defense Media Activity
This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the nearly 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the honor of wearing the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
The next honoree in our blog series was a member of the U.S. Army’s all-black 24th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, one of the last segregated units to engage in combat. This came during the Korean War, which also became the first war since the American Revolution to see black soldiers fighting alongside white soldiers in the same units.
Months before the 24th IR was deactivated, though, 21-year-old Sgt. Cornelius Charlton gave his last full measure of devotion to the country.
Charlton was raised in southern West Virginia, but his family eventually moved to the Bronx, New York City. In 1946, he graduated from high school there and immediately enlisted into the Army, just at the end of World War II.
Charlton was initially assigned to an engineering unit, but he requested and received a transfer into Company C, an infantry unit that was part of the 24th IR. He was one of the last of the “Buffalo Soldiers.”
Charlton earned his Medal of Honor during Operation Piledriver, a major battle in Korea that was aimed at pushing North Korean and Chinese troops out of the south.
On June 2, 1951, Charlton’s platoon was attacking a hill that was heavily defended by Chinese infantrymen and mortars near the village of Chipo-ri, northeast of Seoul. His unit’s leader was injured and had to be evacuated, so Charlton assumed command and rallied the troops to continue the assault.
Using a rifle and grenades, Charlton managed to destroy two hostile positions and kill six enemy soldiers before his unit got pinned down on the hill they were attacking. He tried to push the men forward, but they were driven back again by heavy grenade fire.
Charlton suffered a serious chest wound during that time, but he wouldn’t give in. He refused medical attention and instead led a third charge up the hill, which took them to the crest of the ridge. The platoon then spotted the Chinese bunker that was firing the mortars from the far side of the hill, so Charlton again urged them forward to destroy it. He went ahead of the rest of the soldiers and raked the position with bullets, destroying two Chinese machine guns and forcing back its defenders. But he was hit by a second grenade during the charge – an injury that proved fatal.
Charlton was credited with saving many of the soldiers in his platoon. His courage, leadership and self-sacrifice earned him the Medal of Honor, which he posthumously received in early 1952. He was one of only two black men to receive the award for actions performed during the Korean War.
Charlton also earned the Purple Heart, the Korean Service Medal and many other citations during his military career. But it took many years for him to get a proper burial.
According to congressional records, Charlton’s body was returned to the U.S. and buried in his mother’s family plot, not at Arlington National Cemetery, where Medal of Honor recipients are usually interred. There was some controversy over why that happened: the Army said it was due to “administrative oversight,” but his family believed it had to do with race.
Decades later, in 1990, Charlton’s remains were reinterred at the American Legion Cemetery in Beckley, West Virginia. He was reinterred in 2008 to his final resting place and appropriate location – Arlington National Cemetery.
Thank you, Sgt. Charlton, for your devotion to cause and country!