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Warrior Woody: A true hero

What makes one man a wartime hero and another ordinary? What makes a man care so much about his fellow man that he would risk sure death to save another? Is war justified killing? I woke up at 4 a.m. Friday - wide awake. The snowstorm I'd been wa...

What makes one man a wartime hero and another ordinary?

What makes a man care so much about his fellow man that he would risk sure death to save another?

Is war justified killing?

I woke up at 4 a.m. Friday - wide awake. The snowstorm I'd been watching earlier that evening was curling around toward North Dakota. A large part was moving menacingly, like a wolf on the prowl, toward us.

Predictions said it was going to slam into our area, so I scoured the sky for the storm, but the trees were barely moving. There was some new snow, but the anger and frustration of the storm seemed tamed.


As I stared outside at the snow swirling softly off the roof the garage, it all seemed so ordinary. And a vision of the amazing stories told to me about Woody Keeble came clear to me.

The story appeared in the Feb. 25 Prairie Voice. Keeble was a World War II and Korean War hero. (There is a detailed three-part story of Keeble in the "Soldier of Fortune" magazine by Galen Geer with research by Merry Helm.)

I followed Keeble through World War II and the Korean War from stories told by his stepson, Russell Hawkins, superintendent at Sisseton Agency, S.D.

As words tumbled out of his mouth, I was transfixed in the drama of the battle. In World War II, Woody was part of a battle to hold Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, a supply line for the Allies. Jim Fenelon, a Lakota man from Standing Rock, S.D., told Hawkins this about that battle.

Fenelon stayed close to Woody because he not only was a ferocious warrior but an excellent shot. When the battle was over, Fenelon said, they looked over a horrific sight of thousands of dead enemy.

As they stood in awe, three of the Japanese soldiers stood up from that mass grave with guns cocked, ready to fire. Fenelon said he couldn't react fast enough, but Woody, pulled a grenade and threw it right into the middle of these gunners. He saved his life, he said.

One e-mailer wrote to me and said, "his father was an umpire in an area amateur baseball league." "Woody," he said, "was the most feared pitcher in the league and a strikeout master." Tossing grenades must have been natural, he wrote.

I asked Hawkins about Woody's baseball years. He said laughingly, Woody had a 100 mph fastball that could scare anyone at the batter's plate. He was recruited by the Chicago White Sox before war interfered and changed his path, Hawkins said.


I've talked to Hawkins several times after writing the story. I was interested in any details of Woody's ancestry. Surely, I thought, he must have warriorship in his background. I knew some of the stories of the Dakota and the uprising that resulted in the mass hanging of 38 men in Mankato, Minn., in 1862. It was the largest hanging in the history of this country.

Many of those Dakota families moved to the Sisseton, S.D., area. Woody's family are enrolled members of the Sisseton/Wahpeton Dakota nation. Were the older Keebles warriors from those battles? Hawkins said they didn't know much about the generations before Woody's father, Isaac.

I learned from Hawkins that Woody's father's last name was Buffalo, but it was changed to Keeble during the years when the federal government preferred and tried to change all Indian names into English.

Hawkins did know about Woody's father, Isaac (Buffalo) Keeble. He was a big man. He had a 22-inch neck, and he could have been a linebacker for the National Football League, Hawkins said.

The old man was tough on his sons, Woody and Tom, Hawkins said. He would have them jump in Pickerel Lake near Waubay, S.D., all year long or until the lake froze over. He told them they would have strong hearts if they did it. I suspect the family believes this is true now.

In the years I've listened to stories of the men in my family and our tribe, I've heard extraordinary stories about their bravery, too. Uncles who were captured and lived through torture, witnesses who saw some of these men do deeds that ordinary men wouldn't do. Most were private and humble about their deeds.

I also know that it isn't just American Indian men who were courageous. There are heroes from every war and every race.

Does war separate the good from the bad so killing is defensive? The enemy is always the bad guy. I know the Keebles of this world are heroes because they give themselves for others, and they are not the people who place a signature on a declaration of war.


I wished I had met Woodrow Wilson Keeble. He was a hero with a good and gentle heart and extraordinary strength and prowess.

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