MYSTIC — Michael Keenan keeps his older brother’s military medals displayed prominently in the office of his home on Mystic Hill Road.
They serve as a constant reminder of the highest award, the Medal of Honor, that Keenan says his older brother, Joseph F. Keenan, a U.S. Navy hospital corpsman, earned in the Korean War and still deserves to receive.
Joseph was 20 years old when he shipped out to Korea, arriving on Friday, Feb. 13, 1953, where he was assigned to Company F, Second Battalion, First Marine Division. He died in the five-day “Nevada Cities Battle,” during which the Marines suffered some of their worst losses of the Korean War.
In a letter to his parents dated March 16, 1953, printed in “The Korean War: Uncertain Victory,” by Donald Knox, Joseph wrote, “Just a few lines to let you know I am okay and getting along all right … Tomorrow I go back to the outpost for six days and then I’ll have a couple more patrols to go on before getting off this hill on the 25th of the month.”
Sadly, Joseph did not make it home to his six brothers and two sisters. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Francis Keenan, of Dorchester, Mass., received a Western Union telegram informing them of their son’s passing.
“It is with deep regret that I officially report the death of your son Joseph Francis Keenan, Hospital Corpsman Third Class U.S. Navy, which occurred on 26 March 1953 as a result of action in the Korean area,”’ from Vice Admiral J.L. Holloway Jr., Chief of Naval Personnel.
On that night, about 3,500 Chinese attacked three Marine outposts — Reno, Carson, and Vegas, known as Nevada Cities. Working at the Reno outpost, Joseph was first wounded when shrapnel hit his hand but he continued to search for injured marines. He was then struck in the head by flying shrapnel and somehow found his way to the aid station, where he was told to stay after his head was bandaged.
Finding he could still walk, he returned to search for the injured. This time a blast sent dirt into his eyes, nearly blinding him, but again he continued to look for and treat wounded Marines. A call went out for volunteers to go up to Reno to look for injured Marines, which was a dangerous mission. Joseph went with Marine Cpl. Thomas Kennedy and two other Marines named Sweeney and Taylor. On the way back, Joseph was hit in the head again with shrapnel and died after he helped treat a wounded man who was being carried to safety.
On Jan. 21, 1983, Michael Keenan received a letter from Dr. William Beaven, battle surgeon, who stated that he had nominated Joseph for the Medal of Honor for his actions on March 26, 1953.
“I think I can be most helpful in stating that I [am] certain I wrote your brother up for a Congressional Medal of Honor,” wrote Beaven, who passed away in 1988. “This implies, as you know, a detailed accounting of one’s actions in the field, and I can remember laboring over the report to this day.”
However, instead of receiving the Medal of Honor, Joseph received the Navy Cross on May 14, 1999. The Navy Cross is the second-highest honor awarded for valor in combat and extraordinary heroism.
Receiving the Navy Cross was a huge honor, but Joseph’s nomination for the Medal of Honor continued to weigh on Michael’s mind.
In 2017, Cpl. Kennedy gave testimony supporting Joseph’s bravery in bringing back wounded Marines from Reno Hill under extremely dangerous conditions.
“We [looked] to Joe for decisions on how to handle any wounded Marine we might find. So, under intense enemy fire, we ran to the top of Reno Outpost. With Joe Keenan supervising us, we put this badly wounded Marine on our stretcher …. The fire from mortar and bullets was even worse than the trip up to Reno Outpost,” Kennedy wrote. “We all ran like hell with the wounded Marine on the stretcher and Joey Keenan beside him. We had to drop the stretcher many times because of the incoming mortar rounds we were getting. Joe Keenan kept yelling and urging us on [because] some of us were getting hit and almost giving up and just staying down for good …. I do believe it was Joe Keenan who kept our spirits up so we continued.”
However, Kennedy’s testimony did not qualify as evidence toward the Medal of Honor award, according to a Dec. 4, 2017, letter from J.E. Nierle, president of the Navy Department Board of Decorations and Medals, who responded on behalf of Secretary of the Navy Richard Vaughn Spencer.
“The totality of evidence does not support [the] award of the Medal of Honor in this case,” wrote Nierle.“Evidence may include official documents and reports, and sworn and notarized eyewitness testimony. However, personal letter and diaries, commercially published material and other unsworn and unofficial accounts may not be considered.”
Nierle said Kennedy’s February 2017 statement was thoroughly examined in the context of the Medal of Honor criteria.
“It was determined the Navy Cross was the appropriate recognition for your brother’s actions and the evidence does not justify upgrade to the Medal of Honor.”
Nevertheless, Michael Keenan has persisted.
On April 5, 2018, he wrote a letter to General John Kelly, the president’s Chief of Staff, explaining that Beaven had nominated Joseph for the Medal of Honor and that other attempts to have Joseph’s award upgraded had been rejected.
Michael pointed out that exceptions have been made by past presidents and asked that President Trump use the power of the executive office to upgrade Joseph’s award.
“I believe presidential intervention is the only path left for me to succeed in my efforts,” wrote Michael. “I realize how busy President Trump is but also his devotion toward those who served our country.”
Michael requested the president waive the regulations in this case and allow Joseph to be “honored appropriately.”
Sitting in his office near Joseph’s medals on Wednesday, Michael said his brother could have been evacuated after being wounded the first or second time but “he took it upon himself after getting a head wound to go back into action.”
Keenan said he’s not about to stop working to get his brother the proper recognition.
“Nothing is impossible. It’s about keeping his memory alive.”