It seems like Almost Yesterday that President Harry Truman awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, posthumously, to Private Billie Gene Kanell of Poplar Bluff, Mo.
“Billie Gene” was born June 26, 1931, in Poplar Bluff, the son of John and Iva Kanell. He was the second son in a family of nine children. His sister described him as the older brother who took care of the younger children, putting bandages on knees, checking bicycle tires and gently resolving youthful disagreements.
When the Korean War began in the summer of 1950, 19-year-old Billie Gene responded quickly to his nation’s call. He was trained as a rifleman, placed in the 25th Infantry and took ship to Korea. There was a brief pause in Hawaii where Private Kanell celebrated his 20th birthday. He was no longer a teenager.
Eleven days later, he was engaged in combat in Korea.
By September of 1951, there was especially hard fighting north of Seoul. On Sept. 7, Kanell and two comrades were in a bunker on Hill 717 which came under a severe attack. Enemy soldiers fought right up to their bunker – and a hand grenade landed at their feet.
Without hesitation, Kanell grabbed the grenade with both hands, pulled it tightly against his chest, and fell to the ground, taking the full forge of the explosion. Although terribly wounded and lying on the ground with fighting raging around him, he saw a second grenade land in the bunker.
With all of his remaining strength, he reached out and pulled the grenade in against his body as it exploded. It was an act of incredible self-sacrifice – which cost him his life but saved the lives of his friends.
For his actions, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military recognition.
It seems like Almost Yesterday that we had such heroes.