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William Charette dies, received Medal of Honor

Aboard USS Canberra in 1958, Navy corpsman William

Aboard USS Canberra in 1958, Navy corpsman William R. Charette selects the coffin that then represented the unknown casualities of World War II at Arlington National Cemetery. Photo Credit: United States Navy Naval History and Heritage Command

William Charette, a Navy corpsman who received the Medal of Honor during the Korean War for jumping on top of a wounded Marine to protect him from the blast of a nearby grenade, died Sunday at his home in Lake Wales, Fla. He was 79.

He had complications from heart surgery, said his daughter, Laura Bennett.

Of the seven Korean War sailors who received the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for valor, five were Navy corpsmen. Of those five, only Master Chief Charette survived the war.

In May 1958, Charette was given a historic honor. Aboard the cruiser Canberra off the Virginia coast, Charette knelt before a flag-draped coffin containing the unidentified remains of a World War II veteran. He placed a red-and-white floral wreath and snapped a salute.

In doing so, Charette had formally selected that coffin to represent all the nameless lost in World War II. It is interred today at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery under the inscription: "Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God."

During the Korean War, he was serving as the medic (a corpsman in Navy parlance) for a Marine Corps infantry unit fighting communist forces near Panmunjom on March 27, 1953.

Amid combat, Charette became separated from his platoon. While searching for his men, he learned that another group of Marines had decided to lead an assault on the enemy.

"When they told us to start going forward I thought, 'I'll wait until my platoon catches up,' " Charette said in the 2002 book "Medal of Honor." "But the sergeant stood up. He had a machine gun and his words were very encouraging: 'OK, men, move on out, because if they don't kill you, I will.' " Charette advanced.

Throughout the battle, he "repeatedly and unhesitatingly moved about through a murderous barrage of hostile small-arms and mortar fire to render assistance to his wounded comrades," according to his Medal of Honor citation.

From a promontory above the Marines, the communist forces began lobbing grenades onto the Americans. "There were so many going off there was no way to count them," Charette once said. "It was just a constant roar."

As Charette was tending a severely wounded Marine, a grenade bounced a few feet away. Acting on instinct, he said later, he laid himself over the wounded Marine.

Charette's body absorbed the blast, protecting the Marine from further injury. When Charette came to, he couldn't see, his eyes covered in his own blood. Although wounded, Charette continued to care for his comrades.

Having lost his medical pack in the blast, he tore off strips of his own clothing to use as bandages. He gave up the remnants of his combat jacket to an injured Marine who was shivering in the frosty air.

Later, Charette exposed himself to enemy fire while he hoisted a wounded Marine to safety.

"I could hear the bullets zipping by my head," Charette told a Veterans of Foreign Wars publication in 2003. "But I couldn't leave the guy there."

William Richard Charette was born in Ludington, Mich. Orphaned at 5, he was raised by an uncle.

After high school, he worked aboard a ferry that hauled cars across Lake Michigan. He decided to join the Navy in 1951, figuring his experience aboard the ferries made him ideally suited for sea duty.

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