There was a time when few thought that William Edward Weber would survive. In fact, his friend who fought with him on that snow-covered mountaintop in Korea was sure he was dead.
But Weber fooled them all. Not only did he survive, but he became the first double amputee to serve in the active Army. Today, Nov. 10, is the 95th birthday of this extraordinary man.
Bill was born in Chicago in 1925, but grew up in Milwaukee. When he was 17, he enlisted in the Army, and was deployed with a glider infantry regiment assigned to the Pacific Theatre. He decided to make the military his career, and as a member of the 187th Airborne, he was sent to Korea. According to the book, Rakkasans, it was in the battle in September for Seoul after the Inchon landing, that Lt. Weber earned a Silver Star and received his first wound. He commented on his shoulder wound that it wasn’t the kind that would put him down, and it was not much more that a needle stick, just a little larger.
In October, his 187th Regimental Combat Team (RCT) was ordered to drop behind enemy lines to cut off the retreating North Koreans. But bad weather delayed the jump, and the enemy used that time to disappear into the mountains. The most tragic result of the delay was that two trainloads of American POWs who the 187th had hoped to rescue were executed by the enemy rather than fall into friendly hands. In the book Sunchon Tunnel Massacre Survivors, it notes that one of these 67 murdered men was Master Sgt. Clyde M. Starkey from Hagerstown.
In late November 1950, the Chinese entered the war and attacked the allies across the entire peninsula and soon the U.S. was in full retreat. Frederick County’s Private 1st Class Paul Carty, Sgt. Lee Delauter and Cpl. Kenneth Ridge died at the Chosin Reservoir. Sgt. Norman Reid, Private 1st Class Manville Dagenhart, Cpl. Joseph Trail and Cpl. Jacob Ely are all still MIA near Kunu-ri.
Gen. Ridgeway needed to stop the Chinese, and the town of Wonju, because of its communication and road network, was crucial to both sides. On Feb. 12, the enemy hit the allied armies hard. According to Rakkasans, on Feb. 14, K Company, 3rd Battalion of the 187th Airborne RTC commanded by Captain Weber was ordered to take Hill 342, the highest peak overlooking Wonju. Actually there were three peaks along the ridge line, 340, 341 and 342. Intelligence had reported that the Chinese were getting ready to attack with a large force that was just four miles north of Wonju.
As Captain Weber formulated his plan of attack, he requested permission from Lt. Col. Delbert Munson to delay the attack until dark as the Chinese would not be expecting the Americans to attack at night. Weber and his men proceeded quickly and by 9 p.m. were up Hill 340 and Hill 341. Less than an hour later, they reached the crest of Hill 342. Weber anticipated the enemy would soon mount a counterattack, so they dug in and strengthened their perimeter. At 3 a.m., the Chinese struck, blowing whistles, horns and bugles. The captain ranged around his positions, constantly exposing himself to enemy fire. Private 1st Class Donald Boore, usually a recoilless rifle gunner, kept backing up and firing until he was at the top of the hill. Noticing a machine gun not operating, he disassembled it in the complete darkness and soon had it pumping lead.
Soon Weber realized his team had to move back to Hill 341 and form a tighter perimeter there. It was tough due to the many wounded that had to be carried to safety. The Chinese didn’t let up. One grenade landed in the fox hole occupied by Capt. Weber and his forward observer. Weber quickly reached for the grenade to throw it back, but it went off before it left his hand. He lost his right arm just below the elbow. His master sergeant quickly wrapped the stump, and Weber claims that he really didn’t feel anything. His wound didn’t stop Weber from continuing to command his company. But 20 minutes later, a mortar round landed in his command post, shattering his right leg just below the knee.
One veteran said later that it was the most terrible firefight that he had ever witnessed in three wars. The Chinese finally broke off their attack at dawn, and the wounded were taken off the steep mountain, sometimes having to wait as long as eight hours. Capt. Weber was hit again in the hip and abdomen while at the aid station, eventually losing his right lower arm and right lower leg. But that did not stop this hard-headed trooper. He remained in the active Army until he retired as a colonel.
His second act was to shepherd the National Korean War Memorial. He was in on its planning and then created a nonprofit to fund repairs. His final effort has been to raise funds to complete the monument with a “Wall of Remembrance” — listing all of those KIA and MIA.
He and his wife, Annelie, have worked tirelessly to have our country recognize the sacrifices made in the Korean War. His comrades in the Korean War Veterans of America have honored him by naming their Chapter 142 after him. Although he has given up skiing and horseback riding, he still gets around and continually represents the veterans of the Korean War so that it is no longer the “forgotten war.”
Happy Birthday, Col. Weber!
Priscilla Rall met Col. Weber during her volunteer work with the Frederick County Veterans History Project. She volunteered for the FCVHP for 15 years, the last of those five years as director.