Local soldier's rare Medal of Honor set for museum display

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At the battle of Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876, Sioux Indians annihilated George Armstrong Custer and his men, demoralizing U.S. Army soldiers who fought to push them back onto a reservation.

More than two months later, Sgt. John Kirkwood, a Pittsburgh native, boosted military morale by rescuing a fellow officer after the Army's 3rd Cavalry attacked an Indian village in Slim Buttes in the northwest corner of South Dakota.

On Sept. 9, 1876, during a pre-dawn raid on 35 Indian lodges, Sgt. Kirkwood saved Lt. Adolphus H. Von Luettwitz, who was wounded in the kneecap and fell from his horse.

As arrows flew and guns blazed, the 25-year-old sergeant carried his injured lieutenant from the battlefield to safety atop a ridge. With the help of another soldier, Sgt. Kirkwood attacked and drove Sioux Indians from their hiding place in a ravine.

Betty Willey, 84, of Asbury Villas in Mt. Lebanon, relived her uncle's military career when she took a field trip in April to Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland. By chance, she rode in her wheelchair up to a poster recounting Sgt. Kirkwood's bravery, for which he received the Medal of Honor -- the nation's highest military award for valor against an enemy.

After she casually mentioned the outing, her niece and nephew -- siblings Melinda and Don Willey -- visited Michael Kraus, the museum's curator, to see for themselves what was on public view about the man who figured in their extended family's lore. Those visits have prompted Sgt. Kirkwood's descendants to permit his medal and other relics of his service to be included in a new exhibit planned for the museum.

"You would have thought the guy had won the lottery," Melinda Willey said of the earlier meeting with Mr. Kraus. "He took us and showed us the display. We realized, at that point, that we had something very valuable and very pertinent to Pittsburgh history."

The Willeys are donating Sgt. Kirkwood's Medal of Honor to the memorial because he was born in the region and already is included in the museum's Hall of Valor.

"This medal is so rare. It's the top dog," Mr. Kraus said, adding that few of them were awarded during the Indian Wars. It is illegal to buy or sell Medals of Honor.

"Its monetary value is zero. Its historic value is huge," Mr. Kraus said.

Using other mementos obtained from the family, Mr. Kraus plans to create a new exhibit about Sgt. Kirkwood by the end of the year.

In the meantime, he's going to contact military authorities and ask them to correct Sgt. Kirkwood's tombstone, which erroneously list his rank as private and makes no mention of his Medal of Honor. His grave is in the Soldiers Home National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Sgt. Kirkwood and the 150 soldiers who raided the Indian village in 1876 captured ponies and stole a large store of dried buffalo and antelope meat.

"When they looted the [Indian] lodges," Mr. Kraus said, they found Custer's battle flag and gauntlets from famous officers.

"They knew these Indians had participated in the battle of Little Big Horn. They felt like they were taking some vengeance," he added.

In addition to those items, the museum is also acquiring Sgt. Kirkwood's certificates, photos, reunion medals and wallet.

For decades, photos of Sgt. Kirkwood standing at the memorial in Slim Buttes and his Medal of Honor certificate hung in the bedroom of Melinda and Don's father, Robert McElroy Willey.

Still, "Our Dad never mentioned it," Melinda Willey said. Their father had attended what was then called Carnegie Tech, became an engineer and worked for Shell Oil in Houston, Texas, where she and her brother grew up.

Sgt. Kirkwood's other military mementos lay tucked in an envelope in a dresser in Betty Willey's home on Milton Street in Regent Square, where she lived for 80 years.

Her family discovered the envelope during a major house cleaning in 2006 after she was hospitalized. Don Willey, of Houston, Texas, found the Medal of Honor paper certificate first.

"I said, 'Oh my God, is this for real?' " Mr. Willey recalled. The find sent him and his sister on a hunt for the medal, which he located in their late father's safety deposit box in Texas.

A decade before his death, Sgt. Kirkwood returned to the South Dakota battlefield in 1920 for the dedication of a monument there. In one photo, he stands next to the obelisk, wearing his Medal of Honor.

By August 1928, Sgt. Kirkwood lived in Bellevue with his sister, Crissie Kirkwood Willie. That year, he recounted his experiences in the Battle of Slim Buttes to a Pittsburgh Press newspaper reporter. He downplayed his role, saying, "We were just a bunch of hoodlums."

Betty Willey was only 4 when her uncle died in 1930 at age 78, but she recalls him as a generous man who often handed her a nickel or a dime to buy penny candy.

Melinda Willey, a retired broadcasting executive from Sacramento, Calif., is proud that her great-great uncle saved his fellow officer. But tears well in her blue eyes when she speaks of the U.S. government's heinous treatment of Native Americans.

"I am truly sorry to the American Indians for what our country did to them. It wasn't right," she said. For 27 years, she has visited Mount Shasta, a 14,000-foot peak in California where Indians still hold sacred ceremonies. She compared the carnage of America's war on Indians to the plot of the 2009 movie, "Avatar," where corporations take over the land of another planet's native people.

For Melinda Willey, the experience has offered a lesson in the value of talking to relatives, especially the ones who keep family mementos.

"While they're still living, get the story," she said.

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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