It was the beginning of a long, chilly April night in 1951. Red Chinese bugles howled and whistles shrieked for the umpteenth time. ‘They’re comin’ again,’ the slightly built corporal whispered to his machine-gun detail. Flares burst above the ridge, and an enemy mortar barrage again began to creep toward the American positions.
The ghostly light of falling flares played across the face of the machine-gun section’s leader, accentuating the young soldier’s Asian features. He could have been mistaken for the enemy, but for the uniform he wore and his New Mexican accent. Shells straddled the trench. The bugles and whistles grew louder as shadowy figures clambered up the steep, shell-pocked slope.
‘Stay put,’ snapped the corporal. He yanked his bayonet from its scabbard and clamped it on his carbine. ‘Cover me,’ he ordered. He pulled himself from the trench, slithered a few feet on his belly and then sprang upright and charged the advancing enemy soldiers.
More than two years later, U.S. Army Sergeant Hiroshi H. Miyamura remembered that rainy night of April 24, 1951, as if it were yesterday. He had been the Company H, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, corporal who had ‘charged’ that night. Now, on August 20, 1953, Miyamura climbed down from a Soviet-built military truck with 19 fellow prisoners of war at a place called Panmunjom, which he had heard mentioned while in a Communist Chinese prison camp in North Korea. He and his repatriated POW buddies were hustled into military ambulances for a 15-minute drive to another unloading point, Freedom Village, where doctors, nurses and medics took over.
Pale and undernourished, the newly freed Americans shucked off their faded blue Chinese uniforms and showered. They were examined by doctors, dusted with DDT and issued oversize fatigues. Each former POW was then handed a large canteen cup filled with ice cream. If the doctors declared them physically and mentally up to it, they were interrogated by intelligence officers and then led out to meet the press.
As Sergeant Miyamura (who had been promoted while in captivity) was led to the microphones and news cameras, he was greeted by Brig. Gen. Ralph Osborne, the Freedom Village commander, who raised his hands for silence. ‘Gentlemen of the press,’ the general announced, ‘I want to take this occasion to welcome the greatest V.I.P., the most distinguished guest to pass through Freedom Village.
‘Sergeant Miyamura, it is my pleasure to inform you that you have been awarded the Medal of Honor.’ Miyamura was visibly shaken. ‘What?’ he gulped. ‘I’ve been awarded what medal?’
During the nearly 130 years that the Medal of Honor has been awarded for ‘conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty,’ none of the other recipients have learned about the honor quite the way that 27-year old Sergeant Miyamura did. Nineteen months before his release from captivity, a Medal of Honor citation dated December 21, 1951, had been filed away in the Department of the Army’s tightest security vault. Classified ‘top-secret,’ it was finally removed from its Pentagon security vault at the start of Operation Big Switch, the exchange of POWs between the United Nations command and the Communists, and delivered to U.S. Eighth Army headquarters in Seoul shortly after the Korean armistice was signed in late July 1953.
General Osborne began reading aloud from the citation that had been handed to him less than a half-hour before. ‘On the night of 24 April, Company H was occupying a defensive position near Taejon-ni, Korea, when the enemy fanatically attacked, threatening to overrun the position. Corporal Miyamura, a machine-gun squad leader, aware of the danger to his men, unhesitatingly jumped from his shelter….’
As the general continued reading, Sergeant Miyamura clearly recalled those events. A major Chinese offensive had cracked the U.N. line. The 3rd Division had been ordered to pull back. H Company withdrew under a heavy enemy mortar barrage followed by two separate battalion-size probes. Miyamura was positioned between a light and a heavy machine gun, directing their fire. Shortly before midnight, the Chinese again advanced up the slope. He called out to his gunners, ‘Short bursts, short bursts!’ and switched his carbine to automatic fire, squeezing off short bursts. He also hurled grenades down the slope.
The attackers were finally stopped. Twenty minutes or a half-hour passed. Then, enemy mortar rounds again fell along the ridgeline. Flares popped overhead, and the bugle calls and whistles resumed, along with shrieks of ‘Kill! Kill! Kill dam ‘mericans!’
Miyamura hurled more grenades and emptied his carbine. The shadowy figures moving up the slope toward his position dropped before his fire. Off to his right, the heavy machine gun blasted away. There was silence from the .30-caliber light-machine-gun position on his left. He clambered from his hole and crawled to his left flank. The light weapon and its crew were gone. Had they bugged out?
No. A runner must have instructed them to withdraw. But why hadn’t the runner touched base with him? Crouching low, Miyamura dashed toward the heavy-machine-gun position but stumbled across a body and fell flat on his face. A flare popped overhead, and he dropped flat beside the body. It was one of H Company’s runners. No wonder he hadn’t gotten the message to withdraw.
Miyamura found two of the four GIs in the machine-gun position hit by shrapnel, and he dressed their wounds. Instructing them to cover him, he clamped his bayonet on his carbine and left the emplacement, sliding down the slope toward the enemy. Minutes later, there were agonizing cries in the darkness from the direction he had gone.
‘…Wielding his bayonet in close hand-to-hand combat, killing approximately 10 of the enemy,’ General Osborne continued. The Chinese soldiers had been cautiously moving up the slope when Miyamura suddenly appeared in their midst. Jabbing and slashing, he scattered one group and wheeled around, breaking up another group the same way. Miyamura then ran back up the slope and slid into the machine-gun position. He ordered the gunners and the two wounded riflemen to fall back; he would cover them. Suddenly he was alone and frightened. He leaned against the machine gun and waited. It didn’t take long. Bugles and whistles sounded, and the ‘Kill! Kill!’ chant of the enemy grew louder and closer.
‘…As another savage assault hit the line, he manned his machine gun and delivered withering fire until his ammunition was expended,’ the general went on. Miyamura broke up that attack, and when he ran out of ammunition he began hurling grenades in the enemy’s direction. It was time for him to withdraw, but first he had to destroy the heavy machine gun. He placed a grenade, its pin pulled, against the gun’s open breach, then ran into a nearby trench.
Loping down the trench, Miyamura turned a corner and slammed into an enemy soldier. Both recoiled, but Miyamura was faster; he shot the Chinese soldier, wounding him. The Chinese soldier then lobbed a grenade in Miyamura’s direction, but he kicked it back. It exploded, killing the enemy soldier and wounding Miyamura in the leg. ‘…He killed more than 50 of the enemy before his ammunition was depleted and he was severely wounded,’ the general continued reading.
Miyamura recalled the nightmarish events leading up to his capture. The eastern horizon was beginning to grow lighter, and the enemy soldiers were now pouring off the ridge he had evacuated. He spotted a friendly tank that had been staked out to cover the withdrawal, now preparing to pull out. Miyamura ran desperately toward it, only to stumble into American barbed wire. Sobbing in pain, he heard the tank rumble away.
‘When last seen, he was fighting ferociously against an overwhelming number of enemy soldiers,’ the general continued. But that wasn’t quite the way it happened, Miyamura remembered. He managed to free himself from the wire and dropped into a small shellhole, throbbing with pain from the barbed-wire punctures and from the grenade-fragment wound in his leg. Enemy troops swarmed down the back slope and walked by the hole in which he lay, ignoring what they thought was a dead GI. If he could last through the day playing dead, he might be able to make it back to his own lines when night fell. A lone enemy soldier stopped beside him and leveled a U.S. Army 45-caliber pistol at his head. ‘Get up,’ he ordered in English. ‘I know you’re alive. We don’t harm prisoners.’
Four days later, a 3rd Division task force slashed its way back to the position Miyamura had evacuated. Miyamura was not among the dead GIs who lay there with more than 50 enemy dead, scattered on both slopes of his position.
Why was Miyamura’s Medal of Honor citation classified top-secret? General Osborne explained: ‘If the Reds knew what he had done to a good number of their soldiers just before he was taken prisoner, they might have taken revenge on this young man. He might not have come back.’ Sergeant Hiroshi H. Miyamura, America’s first secret hero, was formally presented his Medal of Honor by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a White House ceremony on October 27, 1953.
Miyamura has since visited Washington several times as an invited guest at presidential inaugurations. A career as an auto mechanic and service station owner made it possible for him to send his three children to college. Miyamura is now retired in his hometown of Gallup, N.M., and ‘doing the many things that I now have time for.’ An avid freshwater fisherman, he spends much of his time trout fishing in the many lakes in the Southwest.
This article was written by Edward Hymoff and originally published in the April 1996 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!