On Monday – 50 years, six months and 13 days after he led a dozen men in a night attack on a hill in central Korea – the United States government awarded Lt. Ray Sargent the Silver Star.
The medal, the third highest a soldier can receive, came with a presidential citation, which reads, “Lt. Sargent’s actions, professional competence and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the 224th Infantry Regiment and the United States Army.”
On June 16, 1952, Ray Sargent was 25 and had only been in Korea for about a month. Sargent was already a veteran of World War II, which he was drafted into, and after that war he enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Though he was a veteran and an officer, he had only been with the 224th for two weeks. For an assault on the Chinese Army units dug in around Hill 598 in Kumhwa Valley in central Korea, he was supposed to be an observer.
“I felt embarrassed about going along because I had no function at the time,” Sargent said, “so I went to the company commander and he says, ‘You can come along,’ but he says, ‘as long as you stay out of the chain of command; you don’t interfere with anything, you can come along and observe only.'”
During the attack, Sargent’s platoon drifted off from the rest of its unit. Then the company was ambushed. Thirty-five men went down, dead or wounded. He stopped being an observer.
“When I saw everything happen, all these casualties,” Sargent said, “I just forgot what he said and did the best I could.
“When all the burp guns from the enemy and the grenades started to bounce, I sensed that we were being overrun and I collared about 10 or 12 soldiers that were heading out the area and I arranged them in a semi-circle to beat off a pending attack.
“Then I happened to get a radioman among those 12 men and I called in four rounds of 105 mm artillery into our position, sensing that we were right amongst – that we’d actually bungled onto the main Chinese objective and I called in four rounds, which came in. Immediately after that … we high-tailed it to the enemy trench line, which was maybe a 20-yard-long trench, and that was where they were firing from.
“With the artillery rounds keeping them under cover, and I mean when you get artillery rounds you duck for cover, and immediately after that we started out. I was firing up a storm. I had an automatic carbine; I actually fired 240 rounds that night. I headed towards the enemy bunker and I threw a grenade in the bunker and then we riddled the trench up and down with automatic fire. By that time we were out of ammunition, and also by that time all the wounded and dying were evacuated from the ambush area.”
The company regrouped during the dawn of June 17. When Sargent’s superiors reported the battle up the chain of command, it was as a complete success.
“It was a complete fiasco from our standpoint because of the ambush. But they wrote a glowing account up to Eighth Army saying how they dished it out to the enemy, you know, hundreds of rounds of artillery and mortar rounds and thousands of rounds of small arms fire and the company taken up against the enemy,” Sargent said. “They didn’t want the Eighth Army to know that the company got ambushed. So that was the reason it was swept under the rug for all these years.”
Sargent’s part in the fight was kept quiet – his superiors told him it was because he was a rookie.
“If this were on Bloody Ridge, Heartbreak Ridge, Sandbag Castle or Pork Chop Hill or any politically active area, we might have been given higher awards,” Sargent said. “You know, no one calls in artillery on his own position – that only happens in a Hollywood movie. We had to do it. That saved our skin, I think.”
After 50 years, Sargent said he hopes his Silver Star will bring awards to the heroes he saw that night, enlisted men who risked their lives for fellow soldiers.
“They were never given any medals or citations, not even a pat on the back,” Sargent said. “They were told in fact, ‘Shush up. Keep this quiet.’ … Now I’m in the process of, after my award, trying to get awards for these three or four men that stood their ground and helped the dying and the wounded when they could have just high-tailed it out of there to safety.
“I’ve been writing people I know, hoping they’re still alive after 50 years, to see if they can give eyewitness accounts for these men so they can get their awards.”
After he left the Army in 1954, Sargent worked as a salesman in New York for six years before moving to California with his wife Anita in 1960. After working at Vandenberg Air Force Base, he moved to Santa Barbara “without a nickel” and took over a failing dry cleaning shop. He expanded Magnolia Cleaners to two shops and 15 employees. He retired last year, after 40 years.
On Monday in a ceremony at Santa Barbara City Hall, Sargent stood with an honor guard from Fort Hunter Liggett, Mayor Marty Blum, the city council and local Korean War veterans. Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) presented Sargent with his Silver Star.
“This was a work of joy,” Capps said. “It’s something that should have been done long ago.”
Sargent said he wasn’t trying to be a hero that night in Korea.
“You speak of people being valorous, but in my case I saw all these wounded and dying GIs and I just got enraged, you know. That’s how. When you get enraged you lose all fear of yourself, of getting killed yourself … Rather than what they say when you get an award like this, ‘You’re a hero,’ but it’s not…. I was enraged at what I saw, our fine men being killed and wounded … So that’s a little insight to what goes on in your mind, at least in my mind.”
– Staff Writer Drew Mackie also contributed to this story.