President Harry S. Truman awards Dexter J. Kerstetter the Medal of Honor on October 12, 1945.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 9/13/2014
  • Essay 10925
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On October 12, 1945, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) awards Sergeant Dexter J. Kerstetter (1907-1972) the Medal of Honor at a White House lawn ceremony. Sergeant Kerstetter will return home to Centralia, Washington, as its first Medal of Honor recipient. On April 13, 1945, when his unit was pinned down by heavy fire from well-entrenched hill defenses, Private First Class Kerstetter charged ahead and destroyed several of Japan's defenses, returning to his squad when he was out of ammunition. Having good knowledge of the Japanese positions, he led a platoon in a new attack on the ridgeline. Under his leadership, the platoon captured the fortified hill and secured it. That day Kerstetter killed 16 of Japan's soldiers and played a major role in securing the hill. Enemy counterattacks followed and two days later Private First Class Kerstetter was wounded by sniper fire. Outside of the army, Dexter Kerstetter will have a career as a machinist at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton. He will drown in a 1972 boating accident on Hood Canal.

Dexter "Pop" Kerstetter of Centralia

Dexter James Kerstetter was born in Centralia and attended two years at Centralia High School before going to work at the Hub City Creamery. He worked there for 13 years as an equipment mechanic.

He loved to hunt and fish and spent much of his free time in those pursuits. He enlisted in the army on March 18, 1942. He entered the army at the old age of 36 and was called "Pop" by young soldiers.

From Kitchen to Combat

Dexter Kerstetter served in Company C, 130th Infantry Regiment, 33rd Infantry Division. The division went to Hawaii in July 1943 to guard military installations and receive jungle training. In May 1944 the division went to New Guinea for additional training.

Its first combat came at the end of 1944 at Morotai where patrols met scattered resistance. On February 10, 1945, the 33rd Infantry Division landed at Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, Philippines. Private First Class Kerstetter was a cook’s helper in the mess hall. With the landing at Luzon, he requested a transfer to frontline combat duty. His request was approved and he became a forward scout. On February 14, 1945, in honor of his valor following the landing, he received the Bronze Star medal.

On April 13, 1945, during a battle in Luzon, Philippines, he advanced ahead of his squad. The American movement had been halted by intense fire that inflicted casualties. Private First Class Kerstetter advanced beyond his squad and worked his way up the ridge where Japan's defenses were located. Japan's soldiers had the ridgeline defended with machine guns, mortars, and infantry in spider holes. He systematically took out enemy defenses with well-aimed rifle fire and grenades. Climbing above the defenses, he dropped down the ridgeline to destroy a cave-entrance defense and its four defenders. He resumed his advance on the ridgeline defenses and next encountered a machine gun position, which he destroyed with accurate rifle fire and a grenade, killing four enemy soldiers. Kerstetter then fired on about 20 of Japan's soldiers behind the main line of defense, scattering them.

Out of ammunition, he returned to his squad for resupply. Having good knowledge concerning the locations of Japan's defenses, he led a platoon to the ridgeline, and on the way took out a rifle position. The platoon was able to secure the ridgeline. Kerstetter killed 16 of Japan's soldiers that day. Company C then held the hill, deterring Japan's counterattacks. During a counterattack two days later on April 15, 1945, Private First Class Kerstetter was wounded in the leg by sniper fire and sent to a field hospital. He was promoted to sergeant and recommended for the Medal of Honor.

Receiving the Medal of Honor

Sergeant Kerstetter was discharged from the army at Fort Lewis on August 25, 1945, and he returned home to Centralia. His first desire was to go hunting. That October while he was out hunting, President Harry S. Truman called with orders for him to report to the White House. His older brother George F. Kerstetter (1896-1974) found him and rushed him home for the flight east.

George accompanied him and on October 12, 1945, they attended the White House lawn ceremony. At the ceremony, Sergeant Kerstetter and 14 others received the Medal of Honor. At the reception following the awards, several dignitaries commented that Sergeant Kerstetter was the oldest person to receive the Medal of Honor that day. He related being called "Pop" by the younger soldiers in his unit.

Life After the War

When Sergeant Kerstetter came home, he was welcomed as Centralia’s first Medal of Honor recipient. On November 1, 1945, the city had Kerstetter Day with a dinner at the Lewis-Clark Hotel. Some 200 guests attended to show their respect. The mayor of Centralia spoke and Governor Monrad "Mon" Wallgren (1891-1961) read Sergeant Kerstetter’s Medal of Honor citation. Governor Wallgren told the audience how proud the people of Washington were of him and his heroism.

After returning to Centralia, Sergeant Kerstetter worked in mechanical repair. He married Thelma I. Iverson (1915-1985) in 1949. This was his third marriage. He would have four sons, two daughters, and three stepsons.

He moved to Olympia and in 1954 moved to Bremerton for a career as a machinist at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Kerstetter served in the Washington National Guard as a major and was due in August 1972 for promotion to lieutenant colonel and retirement.

On July 9, 1972, during a fishing trip on Hood Canal with two of his sons, their boat capsized. While trying to right the 14-foot aluminum boat, it hit Dexter Kerstetter on the head and he went under. His sons could not locate him and his body was never recovered.

A grave marker at the Tahoma National Cemetery recalls his Medal of Honor award and military service with an inscription "In Memory Of" and notes his Medal of Honor. In 2014, a street at Joint Base Lewis McChord was named in his honor.

Sources: Donald K. and Helen L. Ross, Washington State Men of Valor (Burley, Washington: Coffee Break Press, 1980); "Centralia Man Kills 16 Japs in 5 1/2 Hours," Seattle Daily Times, April 23, 1945, p. 2; "16 Japs Killed, Honor Medal to Centralian," Ibid, August 13, 1945, p. 11; "Truman Calls Hero: He's Out Deer Hunting," Ibid, October 9, 1945, p. 8; "Centralia Fighting Man Gets Congressional Medal of Honor," Oregonian, October 13, 1945, p. 3; "Kerstetter Honored," The Centralia Daily Chronicle, November 1, 1945, p. 10; "Gets Second Medal," Ibid, July 7, 1955, p. 14; "War Heroes To Be Feted At White House," Seattle Daily Times, April 25, 1963, p. 5; "Man, 65, missing in Hood Canal," Ibid, July 10, 1972, p. 22.

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