57 years after death, hero to rest in Arlington

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On a summer day 57 years ago, a young soldier from the Bronx saved his platoon on Hill 543, near the village of Chipo-ri, Korea, just northeast of Seoul.

Already wounded in the chest by enemy fire, Army Sgt. Cornelius H. Charlton charged toward the looming ridge, not once but twice. He refused medical attention and headed for the summit a third time, alone. Struck again, he rallied for a final time, destroying two enemy bunkers and killing six enemy troops with his rifle and grenades. He died that night - June 2, 1951. He was 21.

For “indomitable courage, superb leadership and gallant self-sacrifice,” Sgt. Charlton - a member of Company C, 24th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division - was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart, according to Army records.

Sgt. Charlton was one of only two blacks to receive the Medal of Honor during the Korean War. Army Pfc. William Thompson - who died near Haman, Korea, on Aug. 6, 1950 - was the other recipient.

On Wednesday, Sgt. Charlton will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. It will be the third resting place for the West Virginia native, who grew up with 17 brothers and sisters in the Bronx.

“I think of him all the time. We all do. His spirit is just so strong, he’s still alive to us,” said nephew Everett Penn, who never knew his uncle.

“His burial in Arlington has been our real quest. It’s taken all these years for him to be in his rightful burial place. He’s our hero,” Mr. Penn added.

Sgt. Charlton initially was buried in a private Virginia cemetery that served black families in a time of racial segregation. In 1989, the Medal of Honor Society determined that his grave was untended, and reinterred his remains in an American Legion Cemetery in Beckley, W.Va.

There were other honors. In 1958, trees were planted in the Bronx to honor Sgt. Charlton. In 1999, the U.S. Navy christened a cargo transport ship the USNS Charlton. A New York ferryboat is named for him, as is a bridge on the West Virginia Turnpike and an Army barracks complex in South Korea.

But had Sgt. Charlton been denied his spot at Arlington?

Some press accounts say so. A family story maintains that Sgt. Charlton’s funeral cortege was turned away at the gates of Arlington.

The New York Parks and Recreation Department, which dedicated a park to the sergeant, noted that he won his awards “while the American military was still partially segregated, and the brave sergeant was barred from burial in Arlington National Cemetery because he was African-American.”

Cemetery superintendent John C. Metzler denied the charge twice, pointing out that “people of color” have been buried in Arlington since 1864.

“My guess is that it was complacency at the time. The family didn’t know what my uncle was entitled to. Maybe they figured no one would help. So they didn’t complain,” said Mr. Penn. “What emerged is that a lot of dedicated, sincere people came up out of nowhere to help us.”

New York veterans raised $1.5 million for the upkeep of Charlton Park; the veterans and the sergeant’s survivors together embarked on a mission to have his remains reinterred at Arlington. Local congressmen helped them file paperwork. A mortuary provided free services. A charity is offering free charter buses from New York to take friends and family to Wednesday’s ceremony.

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