A Hero's Long Journey to Arlington
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Army Sgt. Cornelius H. Charlton was two months shy of his 22nd birthday when his platoon tried to take a hill near Chipo-Ri, South Korea. The platoon leader was wounded, so Charlton took command.
He rallied his men, who had suffered heavy casualties, and led the next assault, only to be pushed back again. Despite a severe chest wound, he refused medical attention and led another charge. He alone eliminated the remaining enemy emplacement, though he had been hit again by a grenade. His wounds led to his death June 2, 1951.
The next year, Charlton was awarded the Medal of Honor, reserved for the "bravest of the brave," and he was supposed to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. But it didn't happen.
No one knows exactly why it took 57 years for Charlton to receive his hero's burial in the nation's cemetery. But yesterday, all that mattered was that more than 150 friends, relatives and others gathered for the long-awaited ceremony.
Charlton is the only black Medal of Honor recipient from the Korean War buried at Arlington; there are 15 other black Medal of Honor recipients buried there. Medal of Honor winners automatically qualify for burial at Arlington.
"This was a historical moment, not only for the family but also for myself," said Bob Gumbs, a veteran and one of the many people who worked to get Charlton buried at Arlington. "It's really a culmination of a series of events. . . . It's the culmination of a long effort."
Charlton's niece, Zenobia Penn, said she grew up hearing stories about her uncle "Connie," the good guy, the nice guy. But the conversation would inevitably shift to "the injustice of him not being buried in Arlington Cemetery," said Penn, 57, of New London, Conn.
According to family history, relatives had received Charlton's medal and were in a caravan, on their way to Arlington Cemetery, with a horse-drawn buggy carrying the flag-covered coffin, Penn said.
"As they were approaching Arlington Cemetery, they were stopped by some folks in pickup trucks with shotguns, pointing at them and telling them he wasn't going to be buried there," Penn said. "They were just racists. They weren't military. They weren't Arlington representatives. They were just racists. They didn't want to celebrate -- it wasn't time yet for the South to celebrate a black military hero."
Penn's grandparents buried Charlton in Pocahontas, Va., just across the border from West Virginia. In 1989, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and the American Legion made arrangements for him to be buried at the American Legion cemetery in Beckley, W.Va., where he remained until this week.
Charlton was honored in other ways. The Navy christened the USNS Charlton in 1999. There is a Charlton Memorial Bridge in West Virginia and a Charlton Gardens in New York.