Marine Corps Pfc. Robert Simanek was just 22 years old when he jumped on a grenade to save his fellow Marines. But unlike many of the men who have done the same brave thing, he survived to tell his own story.
Simanek was born April 26, 1930, and grew up in Detroit. He was the second-youngest of four boys, all of whom served in the military. Simanek’s oldest brothers fought in World War II. His youngest brother served alongside him in Korea.
Simanek knew he would join a service at some point, but he waited until 1951, about two years after graduating from high school, to enlist in the Marine Corps. In a Veterans History Project interview, Simanek said boot camp at Parris Island in South Carolina was a “rude awakening,” but the training he received would later be just what he needed to survive.
After more training at Camp Pendleton, California, Simanek was shipped to Korea with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, to serve as a rifleman and as a radioman when needed.
On Aug. 17, 1952, Simanek was selected to go on a morning patrol to an area called Outpost Irene just north of Seoul. He wasn’t very happy about it — he’d been out all night patrolling and hadn’t slept. But orders were orders, and he didn’t expect much trouble, so he went.
“I had been to the outpost before and thought of it as a somewhat vacation because no action had ever been there all the time I’d been on that particular part of the line,” Simanek said. “So, I took an old Readers’ Digest and a can of precious beer in my big back pocket and thought I was really going to have a relaxing situation. It didn’t turn out that way.”
Simanek said the squad leader took a different route from what Chinese enemy troops would have expected, but they ran into an ambush anyway as they headed uphill.
Mortars and gunfire exploded around them as they walked in a line along the path. Simanek, who was in the middle of the line, said the Marine directly behind him was struck and killed, so the men behind him ran back to the base of the hill for cover.
Simanek and the five others in the front of the line were forced to hide in a 4-foot-deep circular trench at the top of the outpost’s hill. One of those men was badly injured.
Almost immediately, Simanek said, he saw two Chinese soldiers talking nearby. Somehow, they didn’t see him, so he emptied his .45-caliber gun into them.
The enemy started throwing grenades in their direction. To divert their fire, Simanek popped up and again shot his gun, then dipped back into the trench and crawled about 10 yards away so the Chinese would fire into the wrong spot.
The diversion worked, but not for long. Suddenly, two grenades flew into the trench with them. Simanek kicked one away, but he didn’t think there was enough time to do the same with the second. So, without hesitation, the young Marine threw himself onto the grenade, absorbing its blast to save his entrenched comrades.
“Somehow I managed to use the right part of my body that didn’t hurt me that much,” he said of the wounds he suffered to his right hip and lower leg.
Despite immense pain, Simanek didn’t stop working. He and his men were still pinned down on the hill by two enemy fighters in a bunker slightly below them. Simanek radioed a nearby tank and directed its fire toward the enemy bunker, which was partially hidden by the terrain.
When the tanker fire finally hit the bunker, two of Simanek’s comrades carried the other injured Marine down the hill. But another tanker blast aimed at more Chinese troops injured the two men trying to help him. The men were still mobile, but they weren’t able to carry Simanek, so he told them to go down the hill without him.
“The idea that they couldn’t carry me — it was no doubt the best thing to do for them to get going,” he said.
Simanek was now alone, but he managed to crawl away from the trench on his hands and knees until a rescue squad found him and put him on a helicopter to get proper medical treatment.
“I enjoyed that helicopter ride so much. I just couldn’t get over how beautiful it was. But then, I’d had a shot in the arm, and that sort of gave me a little extra sense of beauty,” Simanek later joked.
The 22-year-old was treated on the USS Haven in Japan for severe nerve damage in his leg. He was then flown to Great Lakes, Illinois, where it took him nearly a year to recover.
Simanek was put on the disability retired list on March 1, 1953, and was discharged with a brace for walking.
Exactly one year after the incident, Simanek was informed that he would receive the Medal of Honor. On Oct. 27, 1953, he was awarded the high honor by President Dwight D. Eisenhower during a White House ceremony.
“One of the hardest things about the medal is you’re really not allowed to forget about it,” Simanek said later in life.
Eventually, the war hero married and had a daughter. He graduated from Michigan State University and served in several business positions during a long civilian career. He retired in 1992.
The veteran said he used to talk to high school students about Korea, advising them to travel the world at some point in their lives to know how good life in American can be.
Simanek, now 90, lives in Farmington Hills, Michigan, with his wife, Nancy.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Source: Department of Defense