Dakota Datebook

Master Sergeant Keeble, Hero

Monday, May 16, 2005

Woodrow Keeble was born in Waubay, SD, on this date in 1917. During his lifetime, he fought in two wars and – with all his medals and awards combined – is reportedly the most decorated soldier in North Dakota history.

Keeble’s parents were from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux tribe. His parents were poor; his mother died early, and his father, Isaac, enrolled Woody in the Wahpeton Indian School so he could get three good meals a day. After Keeble graduated, he worked at the school and made a name for himself pitching baseball. In fact, the White Sox were recruiting him when he was called to action in World War II. His first battle took place on the island of Guadalcanal on October 13, 1942; he was in Co. I of the North Dakota 164th Infantry.

Keeble’s stepson, Russell Hawkins, explains what the 164th faced at Guadalcanal: “The Japanese had not been defeated,” he says. “They’d gone through Burma, they’d gone through China, they’d gone through everybody in their way. They were hardened, they were seasoned, and they were a war machine. And through generations, their code of conduct was, ‘to die is glorious.” You never run, you never retreat, you die with honor. No matter what the odds were, no matter what the enemy, you stood your ground and you fought ‘til you died with your sword. And so that was the enemy you were against at Guadalcanal – the Japanese Imperial Marines.”

Keeble later reflected on his reaction to that battle: “Before I experienced the horror of that attack,” he wrote, “I was quick to call coward or yellow anyone who showed fear under any circumstances. Nevermore. I don’t know these things, but they speak truth to one. I am not a psychologist, nor a statistician, and less of a philosopher; but the depth of emotion, the dreads of fear, the referees of horrors, and the concentration of self that led me to make this observation, the fear impulse, or perhaps, better said, the (impulses caused) by fear, are stronger, more demanding than either that of love or hunger…

“Fear in my opinion is a state of drunkenness,” he wrote. “And when men are in that state when the fear impulse takes a hold… he loses all reason, sense of values, and is not liable, or at least should not be held accountable for acts perpetrated when thus possessed.

“During the 13 months,” Keeble continued, “(in the) almost continual and sustained combat in which I have ever participated, there were moments, and rare ones, I am sure; but they lose none of their terror or horror for which fear laid a relentless and a powerful hold on me, that the pull of cowardice was almost more than I could ward off. There were terrible moments that encompassed a lifetime, an endlessness, when terror was so strong in me, that I could feel idiocy replace reason. (Yet,) I have never left my position, nor have I shirked hazardous duty. Fear did not make a coward out of me.”
James Fenelon, a Standing Rock Sioux, fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Keeble at Guadalcanal and said, “The safest place to be was right next to Woody. I don’t know how many rounds he carried, but he had bandoliers on each shoulder. His gun just never stopped – no matter where you were there were Japanese. He was unbelievable.”

“For meritorious achievement in ground operations against the enemy,” Keeble was awarded his first Bronze Star and Purple Heart at Guadalcanal. It was just the beginning of a long and distinguished career – one we’ll be revisiting…

Sources: Sota Iya Ye Yapi, May 28, 1997 and March 20, 2002; Elijah Black Thunder, Norma Johnson, Larry O’Connor, Muriel Pronovost, Ehana Woyakapi: History and Culture of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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