Harry S. Truman presents the Medal of Honor to Archie Van Winkle on February 6, 1952.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 1/27/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11021
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On February 6, 1952, in a White House ceremony, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) presents the Medal of Honor to Archie Van Winkle (1925-1986) for his exceptional courage displayed during the Korean War. On November 2, 1950, at Chosin Reservoir, an overpowering Chinese force attacked the marines. Platoon Sergeant Archie Van Winkle led a counterattack that broke through the Chinese attacking his unit. His heroic advance through the line disrupted their attack. This allowed the marines to regroup and reorganize to halt the enemy assault. All the men in the counterattack were wounded. Following the push through enemy lines, Sergeant Van Winkle discovered that his squad's left flank was isolated. He ran across 40 yards of withering enemy fire to reintegrate his forces. Sergeant Van Winkle was hit a second time, this a serious chest wound. He refused evacuation, instead remaining with his troops and providing encouragement. When he fainted the medics were able to evacuate him to an aid station. He spent more than six months recovering from his wounds. Archie Van Winkle served in three wars -- World War II, Korea, and Vietnam -- and was awarded 19 medals.

Early Years 

Archie Van Winkle was born in Juneau, Alaska. His father, Archie C. Van Winkle (1891-1967), from Washington, was at the time working in a logging camp. The senior Van Winkle spent 35 years in the logging business. He was a World War I veteran, having served in the 144th Field Artillery.  

In the late 1930s the Van Winkle family was back in Washington. Archie attended Darrington High School, where he excelled in sports. Following high school graduation he entered the University of Washington to study physical education. At the end of his first year he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. Called to active duty, he served as an aviation radio gunner and mechanic. He fought in the Solomon Islands and Peleliu Island.

Sergeant Van Winkle was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for valor. He was discharged on October 22, 1945, and took up residence in Everett. He then returned to college, majoring in physical education at Everett Junior College (later renamed Everett Community College). He was an offensive lineman on the 1947 Everett Junior College football team, the Washington junior college champions. 

In March 1948 he rejoined the Marine Corps Reserve, signing up with Company A, 11th Infantry Battalion, Seattle. While attending Everett Junior College, he met Lavonne "Bonnie" Stewart (1931-1989), who was the 1947 homecoming queen. They married on September 10, 1949. After two years at Everett he returned to the University of Washington to complete his degree. 

The Korean War

While Van Winkle was attending the University of Washington, his Marine Corps Reserve unit was mobilized on August 7, 1950, and ordered to Camp Pendleton, California. Late that month the unit arrived in Korea and was assigned to the First Marine Division.

Van Winkle participated in the September amphibious landing at Inchon. In November 1950 the First Marine Division fought the cold and a massive Chinese onslaught in the Chosin Reservoir area. Staff Sergeant Van Winkle was a platoon sergeant in Company B, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division. 

On November 2, 1950, Platoon Sergeant Van Winkle's unit came under a ferocious attack by a large Chinese force. The superior enemy force penetrated American lines under cover of darkness and pinned down the marines with deadly automatic weapons fire and grenades. 

Staff Sergeant Van Winkle led an attack through the enemy line. He and all the others in the marine counterattack were wounded. The counterattack gave his marines an opportunity to reorganize and create a more effective defense.

Reviewing the situation, Van Winkle saw that the left flank of the squad was cut off from the main force. He rushed through 40 yards of fierce enemy fire to reintegrate the defenses. This was done despite an arm wound that left one arm useless. A second serious wound came when a grenade hit him in the chest. Sergeant Van Winkle refused evacuation and urged his marines to keep fighting. Only when he fainted were medics able to remove him for medical attention.

He was evacuated to a Formosa (Taiwan) hospital and then to a Yokusaka, Japan, hospital. He spent three months in recovery there. To aid in his recuperation he was transferred to a medical facility closer to home, the Puget Sound Naval Hospital, Bremerton. Another three months were required to heal the wounds. On July 16, 1951, he was returned to reserve status in the 10th Infantry Battalion, United States Marine Corps, Seattle. 

Medal of Honor

He resumed his civilian life in Everett. While at home he received a telephone call that he had been awarded the Medal of Honor and would receive it at a White House ceremony. Believing the call was a prank he ignored it, but soon another call convinced him it was real. Archie Van Winkle believed he had done only his duty. Throughout his life he was modest and few outside his best friends knew he had received the Medal of Honor. 

On February 6, 1952, in a White House ceremony, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) presented Sergeant Van Winkle the Medal of Honor. Bonnie Van Winkle was unable to attend as she was imminently expecting a child. A son, Barrik Van Winkle (b. 1952) arrived soon after the ceremony.

The next day, following the Medal of Honor ceremony, Archie Van Winkle was sworn in as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps by General Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr. (1896-1990), commandant of the Marine Corps. The commission came under the meritorious noncommissioned officer program, in which exceptional noncommissioned officers were commissioned as officers.

Van Winkle was at the same time recalled to active duty. He had various assignments and was promoted to captain on December 31, 1954. In 1960 a Marine Corps college program provided the opportunity for him to complete his degree 20 years after starting. He went back to the University of Washington and in June 1961 received a Bachelor of Arts degree in history.  

The Vietnam War

Serving in his third war, Lieutenant Colonel Van Winkle was a battalion commander and then division operations officer. He was awarded the bronze star for valor. A second bronze star was awarded him in recognition of heroism during the battle of Khe Sanh on July 6, 1968. Lieutenant Colonel Van Winkle led a small force to a hilltop (Hill 689) position near Khe Sanh to retrieve marine dead and destroy the defenses as part of the pullout from Khe Sanh.

While accomplishing their mission, the men were ambushed and engaged in fierce combat. Van Winkle again displayed heroism in defending the position.

After the Marines

Archie Van Winkle retired as a colonel in February 1974, and worked for several years in the California correctional system. In the early 1980s, he and Bonnie purchased a boat, the Ha-Lana, and lived on it in Bar Harbor, Tongass Narrows, Alaska.

On May 22, 1986, Archie Van Winkle died on his boat of a heart attack. His ashes were scattered over Tongass Narrows.

Three years after his death, Bonnie Van Winkle and their daughter, Jan Van Winkle (1958-1989), died of carbon monoxide poisoning on the boat. They are buried in the Sitka National Cemetery, Alaska. 

Remembering Archie Van Winkle 

The University of Washington monument to the eight Medal of Honor recipients who attended the university includes Archie Van Winkle. The monument, located in a traffic circle on Memorial Way, was dedicated on Veteran's Day 2009.

At the dedication, General Peter W. Chiarelli (b. 1950), Vice Chief of Staff, Army, and Seattle University and University of Washington graduate spoke. Archie Van Winkle is in the Darrington High School Athletic Hall of Fame. A monument in the Juneau Town Park honors him, and another recalls his heroism in the Sitka National Cemetery.

Sources: Donald K. and Helen L. Ross, Washington State Men of Valor (Burley, Washington: Coffee Break Press, 1980); Joseph R. Owen, Colder Than Hell: A Marine Rifle Company at Chosin Reservoir (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996); The Log  (Darrington School District), Vol. 7, No. 7 (June/July 2012); "Expectant Mother May See Spouse Get Medal of Honor," The Seattle Daily Times, January 29, 1952, p. 4; Alice F. Johnson, "Everett Hero Gets Honor Medal," Ibid., February 6, 1952, p. 17; "20-Year Campaign Succeeds, War Hero Earns U.W. Diploma," Ibid, June 8, 1961, p. 2.

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