Valor Friday

| August 12, 2022

Robert Simanek

My least favorite Valor Friday articles to write are those that coincide with the death of a hero. Such is today’s subject. Last week, Robert Simanek, a recipient of the Medal of Honor, passed away at the age of 92 on 1 August. David posted about it earlier this week, but I wanted to dig deeper into his story. His death leaves only two living Medal of Honor recipients from the Korean War, as we recently lost the last living World War II recipient.

Simanek was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. Born in 1930 he was too young to have served during World War II, and is considered part of the “Silent Generation” sandwiched between the “Greatest Generation” of those alive during World War II and the “Baby Boomer” generation that fought in Vietnam. The Silent Generation were called to service during the Korean War, also known as the Forgotten War.

Simanek was the third of four boys in his family. All would serve. “We were the younger brothers and nephews of World War II, which was just over by five years,” he told the Lansing State Journal in 2000. “The Korean veteran was quite quiet because the nation and ourselves were in awe of the sacrifices of World War II veterans.”

Robert’s two older brothers, William and Harry, were World War II veterans. William Simanek spent three years in the Pacific War aboard USS Pasadena (CL-65). Their younger brother also fought in Korea. In fact, he was in-country at the same time as Robert.

Graduating high school in 1948, Simanek worked in the Motor City’s best known industry. He word for both the Ford Motor Company and General Motors in the years after his secondary education. In June 1950 though, the North Koreans invaded the South, starting the Korean War.

As the newly formed United Nations responded to the communist North’s surprise attack, many men who had watched their older brothers and fathers go off to fight the Nazis and Japanese were spurred into military service. Simanek was one such man. He enlisted with the Marine Corps on 13 August 1951.

The Marine Corps runs two basic training bases, one in San Diego (generally for those enlisting from west of the Mississippi) and one at Parris Island, South Carolina. Enlisting from the eastern half of the US, Simanek went to Parris Island for his boot camp. Thereafter he went to Camp Pendleton in California for additional training before being sent off to Korea in April 1952.

Simanek joined Company F, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines in May where they had already spent nearly two years fighting in Korea. 2/5 Marines had been some of the first units dispatched from the US to reinforce South Korea. They had already participated in the Landing at Inchon, the Liberation of Seoul, and were in the winter hellscape of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. It was in the latter battle that the survivors earned the nicknames “The Chosin Few” and “The Frozen Chosin.”

2/5 Marines have a long history of being some of the fightingest Marines. Their motto is “Retreat, Hell!” The phrase was uttered by Captain Lloyd Williams, an officer of the 2/5 Marines at the Battle of Belleau Wood in the First World War. When the Marines arrived at the front they found their allies the French in a retreat. Williams was ordered by one of the French officers to join the retreat, to which the young Marine offered his candid reproach. The captain is said to have said, “Retreat, Hell! We just got here!” The French major’s report on the matter quotes Williams as telling him “Go to hell!” when he gave the American officer the order to retreat. Unfortunately Williams would perish as he led his men in an offensive that routed the Germans.

They would continue to distinguish themselves through that conflict. During World War II, 2/5 Marines were active in the Pacific Theater. They fought at Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and Okinawa. Korea would be yet another chance for them to earn everlasting glory in battle.

In Korea, the battle weary 2/5 Marines were at the front. In the summer and early fall of 1950, the South Korean and allied forces, caught unprepared by the North’s surprise attack, were nearly pushed entirely out of the country. Over that winter and into the spring of 1951, the UN forces soundly were defeating the North Koreans, having pushed them well back north of the 38th Parallel (the dividing line between the two countries).

As the communist North Koreans were in retreat, their allies in communist China came to their aid. It was against this combined communist enemy that the Marines of the 1st Marine Division (of which 2/5 Marines were a part) would hold the line.

After the Chinese Spring Offensive in 1951 and the UN Counteroffensive in May-June of that year, the opposing sides were engaged in static warfare not very dissimilar from that experienced in the trenches of World War I. Along the Jamestown Line, as it was known, were the Marines and several other American and UN units.

Simanek’s first taste of combat came at what was then known as Outpost Yoke. It would later be renamed Outpost Reno, part of the Nevada Complex of outposts. Legend has it they were named after Nevada’s major cities (Reno, Vegas, Carson, Elko) because “it’s a gamble if we can hold them.”

Starting in August 1952, the 2/5 Marines would be engaged in what came to be called the Battle of Bunker Hill. Contrary to the implication of the name, it was not a single battle, but a series of battles over key terrain along the Jamestown Line from mid-August to the end of September.

Beginning on 9 August, the Marines would fight for several outposts at Bunker Hill, northeast of Panmunjom. Days of fighting had seen four dozen Marines die and hundreds more wounded. Enemy dead were estimated at 400 and total casualties may have been as high as 3,200.

On 18 August, now-Private First Class Simanek’s was sent well forward of friendly lines to secure Outpost Irene, which the Marines had lost to the Chinese the day before. As they approached, the communists sprung a trap.

Simanek wasn’t prepared for it. Tired, he’d been patrolling all night already, the orders came in in the morning to move out. As a radioman, his services were needed by another squad who were headed to Outpost Irene.

“I had been to [Outpost Irene] before and thought of it as a somewhat vacation because no action had ever been there all the time I’d been on that particular part of the line,” Simanek said. “So, I took an old Readers’ Digest and a can of precious beer in my big back pocket and thought I was really going to have a relaxing situation. It didn’t turn out that way.”

The Marines had taken a different approach to the outpost than normal. The Chinese troops had staged an ambush along the expected path. The Leathernecks basically walked in behind the ambush, with the Chinese turning and firing on them from close range.

As the Americans came under heavy mortar and small arms fire, casualties immediately started mounting. Simanek, in the middle of the line of troops, had the man behind him hit by shell fire and die. The men behind them in line retreated to the base of the hill while Simanek and the others were driven to whatever cover they could find as they took withering fire. He and five other Marines found shelter in a nearby trench-line. One of those men was already wounded, shot through the chest.

Simanek recalls the first thing he saw after they hid in the four foot deep dugout two Chinese officers standing, casually in conversation just feet away from him. They had something like a Browning automatic rifle on a bipod. Shocked they hadn’t seen him, Simanek grabbed his weapon, a M1911 .45-caliber pistol (as radioman he carried no rifle), and unloaded on the two enemy, knocking both men down.

Simanek ducked into the trench to reload his pistol. As they kept their heads and their asses down, the enemy closed to within hand grenade range. As the radio operator for the squad, he called in mortar and tank fire, but the enemy was relentless. It was then that not one but two grenades landed in the midst of Simanek and his brothers-in-arms.

Without hesitating, Simanek kicked one of the live bombs away. Its explosion injured his foot, but there was no time to kick the second to safety. His reaction was what few men have done, and even fewer have survived. He threw himself onto the grenade, absorbing the blast with his own body.

For his part, the humble hero later said of his act, “I couldn’t move too well. So I just sort of rolled over on top of that grenade.” He said, “It put a good-size hole in my hip.” He told a Lansing newspaper in 1954 that “I was really more concerned while I was sliding down the hill about the scrapes and cuts I was getting from the barbed wire and shell fragments on the ground.”

“Somehow I managed to use the right part of my body that didn’t hurt me that much,” he said of the wounds he suffered to his right hip and lower leg. Gravely wounded when the enemy munition burst, his comrades were all unharmed by the blast. Needless to say that witnessing such selfless valor will inspire the men into a dogged defense.

When asked if he thought about the act or if it was automatic, he said it was his training. “It was just an automatic thing pushed by somebody” who had instructed him.

Despite grievous wounds, Simanek continued the fight. Lying in that trench he continued to work the radio, calling in tank fire on the enemy’s bunker, which was partially concealed by the terrain. When the tank fire finally knocked out the enemy position, the Marines moved to retreat and help the wounded off the hill.

Two Marines picked up the man who’d been shot in the chest. The other two Marines in the trench moved to lift Simanek. As they did, the friendly tank below them spotted more Chinese troops closing in on the Marines’ position. They fired once more, knocking out the enemy soldiers, but injuring both of Simanek’s would-be evacuators and striking Simanek in the right eye and shoulder.

Simanek was unable to support any of his own weight as his hip and leg were blown out. With the other Marines now having sustained their own injuries, he told them to leave him. He thought their wounds were more severe than his, and since they had working legs, he told them to get down the hill as fast as they could.

“The idea that they couldn’t carry me — it was no doubt the best thing to do for them to get going,” he said. “So, I was left there on top of that hill, just all by myself, wondering ‘what should I do next?’ I didn’t know.”

The valiant Marine continued showing an immense survival instinct, and crawled from the trench on his hands and knees down the hill. For some incredible reason he continued carrying his ~40 pound radio pack with him. He saw, further down the hill an American rifleman who was covering him. He heard on the radio that everyone should keep their heads down as the tanks were continuing to fire right over their positions.

Simanek crawled to the man who was covering his retreat with his rifle only to find that the American machine gunner was dead. He’d been talking to a corpse still manning his weapon.

Soon enough a rescue patrol came upon him. They called in a medivac helicopter. “I enjoyed that helicopter ride so much. I just couldn’t get over how beautiful it was. But then, I’d had a shot in the arm, and that sort of gave me a little extra sense of beauty,” Simanek later joked.

While Simanek was evacuated, his fellow Marines fought on. By the end of August Bunker Hill was under their control. Simanek was first treated aboard USS Haven, a hospital ship that spent most of the Korean War off the coast of the peninsula. He was then sent to Japan. In September 1952, he was finally sent back to the states. First at Mare Island Hospital in California and then Naval Station Great Lakes in Chicago, before he was placed on the disability retired list on 1 March 1953.

For his bravery in the face of the enemy above and beyond the call of duty, Simanek was awarded the Medal of Honor. He’d been told while he was aboard the hospital ship that he was the receive the medal, but as he said, “You don’t believe much in the service until it happens, so I just let it go” and forgot about it.

Simanek was back home in Detroit, working at General Motors, one year to the day of his action. He was in the restroom when someone came in to find him to tell him some reporters were there to talk to him. That’s how he found out for sure he was to receive the Medal of Honor. He was presented the medal in a ceremony at the White House by President Eisenhower on 27 October 1953.

At the ceremony, Eisenhower spent more time talking to Simanek’s grandmother, who had immigrated from Germany and spoke with a very thick accent, than he was in any of the six GIs he was giving medals to that day. Eisenhower did very briefly speak with Simanek, which the media-types noticed, as he didn’t speak with any of the other recipients.

When asked what Ike had said to him, Simanek told the reporters the president had congratulated him. He was too embarrassed to tell them the truth. Eisenhower had said, “Why don’t you turn around and face the crowd?”

“One of the hardest things about the medal is you’re really not allowed to forget about it,” Simanek said later in life. He walked with a limp for the rest of his life, but he and his wife attended presidential inaugurations, spoke to high school kids, and attended reunions and Korean War memorial events. They were active with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

In his post-war service, the bespectacled, unassuming war hero would get a business degree from Wayne State. He would work in the auto industry and for the Small Business Administration. He married Nancy Middleton in 1956. They would be married 64 years, parted only by her death in 2020. They had one daughter in 1959.

Robert died on 1 August 2022 in Novi, Michigan just outside of Detroit. He is survived by his only child Ann Clark of Traverse City and many dear nieces and nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews, and several great-grand nieces and nephews.

USS Lewis B Puller (ESB-3), lead ship of her class

USS Robert Simanek (ESB-7) is a forthcoming Lewis B Puller-class expeditionary mobile base ship of the US Navy. These 785-foot long ships displacing 100,000 tons are the platforms from which Marines will fight for the next several decades. She’s expected to launch in 2024. USS Robert Simanek was ordered in 2019 and her name was announced in January 2021 by the Secretary of the Navy. Construction started last December at General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company in San Diego.

All five ships of the class are named for Marine Corps heroes. Namesakes in addition to the aforementioned Lieutenant General Lewis “Chesty” Puller include some we’ve discussed previously, Hershel “Woody” Williams, Miguel Keith, and John Canly.

Simanek said, “I used to talk to the high schools, I told them, ‘Of course this is the finest country in the world, and maybe you should all try to get away from it some time in your life so you can know how good it is to be a citizen of the United States.

“But I also told them that, no matter how much we love our country, we fought for each other,” he added. “We never thought about it as self-sacrifice as much as the necessity to do your job so that the group could succeed. Any sacrifices we really made were for each other.”

Simanek’s passing leaves Staff Sergeant Hiroshi Myamura and Colonel Ralph Puckett as the only two living Medal of Honor recipients from the Korean War. Simanek was the last surviving recipient from the naval services.

Category: Historical, Korea, Marines, Medal of Honor, Valor, We Remember

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Old tanker

RIP Sir and thank you.


Attached picture is Mr. Robert Simanek at the Talons Out Honor Flight in April 2022.

One can also find other pictures of this great Hero.

“Without hesitating, Simanek kicked one of the live bombs away. Its explosion injured his foot, but there was no time to kick the second to safety. His reaction was what few men have done, and even fewer have survived. He threw himself onto the grenade, absorbing the blast with his own body.”

We think he passed away this past August, not August 2020.

Mason, thank you again (and David) for sharing another story of Valor. How can Military Phonies live with themselves or not feel ashamed when they lie or embellish military service, especially when there are Heroes such as Mr. Robert Simanek who was willing to give his life for his fellow Marines?

Rest In Peace, Sir.


Never Forget.


“…we fought for each other.” And that sums up the character of the True Hero.

Thanks for the follow up story, Mason. That such men lived.

And Thanks to our ninja for “…the rest of the story.” gabn/gabaf/rtr/hbtd