American war heroes are celebrated, but not so much when the person is black. Although Sergeant Cornelius H. Charlton received a posthumous Medal of Honor – America’s highest military decoration – his remains had to be exhumed twice before finally being interred at the Arlington National Cemetery befitting his status.
Charlton earned a chapter in the history books when the leader of his platoon was wounded and evacuated while attacking heavily defended hostile positions on commanding ground. Sergeant Charlton assumed command, rallied the men, and spearheaded the assault against Hill 543 near Chipo-ri.
Not just satisfied with his interim command role, Sergeant Charlton personally eliminated two hostile positions and killed six of the enemy with his rifle fire and grenades continuing up the slope until the unit suffered heavy casualties and became pinned down.
Charlton regrouped the men and despite a severe chest wound, refused medical attention and led a third daring charge which carried to the crest of the ridge.
“Observing that the remaining emplacement which had retarded the advance was situated on the reverse slope, he charged it alone, was again hit by a grenade but raked the position with a devastating fire which eliminated it and routed the defenders.”
Eliminating the enemy position came at great cost as the wounds he received during his exploits resulted in his death same day on June 2, 1951 yet Charlton’s indomitable courage, superb leadership, and gallant self-sacrifice at just 21 appeared to have received little appreciation.
To think that he wasn’t even assigned to the Korean War but asked for a transfer to see action underlined his complete devotion to the military.
His resting place was a source of controversy. Upon his body’s return to the United State, Charlton was buried in his mother’s family burial place, Pocahontas Cemetery in Pocahontas, Virginia.
The cemetery eventually fell into disrepair, and Charlton was re-interred in the American Legion Cemetery in Beckley, West Virginia. It would take a good 57 years in 2008, for him to be re-interred at the Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place for more than 360 recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration.
Charlton born in West Virginia to Van and Clara (née Thompson) Charlton on July 24, 1929 enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1946 aged 17 after graduating from the James Monroe High School. The family had moved to the Bronx in New York City.
A career soldier, Charlton served with the U.S. troops occupying Germany in the aftermath of World War II before being sent to Korea. Initially assigned to an engineering group, Charlton requested transfer to an infantry unit and was subsequently placed in Company C of the 24th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division.
Several structures have been named in Charlton’s honor, including a park in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx, a ferry boat that traveled to Governors Island in the Upper New York Bay, a bridge on Interstate 77 in his home state of West Virginia, and, in 1993, an Army barracks complex in South Korea.
In 1958, trees were planted in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx in honor of the Purple Heart recipient.
In 1999 the U.S. Navy christened a cargo transport ship, USNS Charlton for Sergeant Charlton. His sister, Fairy M. Papadopoulos, served as the ship’s co-sponsor.
Charlton is the only black Medal of Honor recipient from the Korean War buried at Arlington; there are 15 other black Medal of Honor recipients buried there. Medal of Honor recipients automatically qualify for burial at Arlington, but apparently not so straightforward.