Through sheer determination, Army Pfc. Henry Svehla may have single-handedly helped his unit beat back an attack by North Korean forces in 1952. The young rifleman didn’t survive, but the memory of his valor lived on through his family, which spent decades pushing for and eventually getting him the Medal of Honor.
Svehla was born Oct. 30, 1932, in Newark, New Jersey, but grew up in nearby Belleville. He was one of six children — the youngest of three sons — to parents John Svehla, a mechanic, and Susan Svehla, a stay-at-home mother. Henry loved fishing and was known to take care of everyone in the family.
Svehla, whose family nickname was Squeeky, enlisted in the Army in November 1951 as the Korean War was raging. He was sent to the island nation to fight in February 1952 as a member of the 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division.
On June 12, 1952, Svehla was serving as a rifleman with Company F in a region known as the “Iron Triangle” inside what is now the Demilitarized Zone. His company and another unit were doing reconnaissance on Hill 472, an enemy outpost northeast of Chorwon, South Korea, when they were attacked at the top of the hill.
Svehla’s unit began to falter, and the young private knew something had to be done for them to survive. Svehla quickly leapt to his feet and charged at the enemy’s positions, firing his weapon and throwing grenades as he went. His determination caught on, and his platoon rallied behind him with renewed vigor.
Svehla took out several enemy positions and inflicted heavy casualties before being hit by shrapnel from a mortar round that seriously wounded his face. However, he refused medical attention and kept fighting.
When an enemy grenade landed near several other soldiers, Svehla didn’t hesitate — he threw himself on top of it to absorb the blast.
“Every human instinct, every impulse, would tell a person to turn away. But at that critical moment, Henry Svehla did the opposite. He threw himself on that grenade,” said President Barack Obama at Svehla’s Medal of Honor ceremony. “With his sacrifice, he saved the lives of his fellow soldiers.”
Svehla’s body remains unaccounted for. It wasn’t recoverable at the time of his loss, and thus far, it’s not been among the remains returned to the U.S. in the decades since the July 1953 armistice. According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the North Korean government has not permitted investigations of the area where he died.
In lieu of a proper burial, Svehla is memorialized on the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. There, his name is displayed alongside the names of more than 8,000 other Americans missing from the Korean War.
Svehla initially received a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross in March 1953; however, his family thought he deserved more for his sacrifice. They tried to make that happen for 60 years, but there wasn’t any movement on it until 2001 when Svehla’s brother, John, and nephew, Andrew, contacted U.S. Rep Bill Pascrell.
For a decade, Pascrell’s staff made it their mission to give Svehla the proper honor he deserved by uncovering his service records and giving them to the Defense Department for re-examination. That investigation finally got his family what they were hoping for.
On May 2, 2011, Svehla received the Medal of Honor from Obama during a White House ceremony. His sister, Dorothy, accepted it on his behalf. Sadly, his brother, John, who had pushed so hard for the honor, died within a year prior to the ceremony.
While there is no formal burial site for Svehla, his hometown has made a place for him to be remembered. A monument to Svehla was unveiled in Belleville in 2011, and in 2019, a town post office was also dedicated to the fallen soldier.
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