Mystic man pursues medals for fallen brother
On a bookshelf in Michael Keenan’s Mystic home is a row of binders full of decades of correspondence he’s had with people all over the country.
It all really started in 1982, when his mother moved into a senior citizen home, and Keenan obtained the letters his brother had written home while in the Korean War. Joseph Keenan was killed in action at the age of 20. Michael was just 13.
“We really didn’t know any of the circumstances with my brother’s death,” Keenan said, sitting at his kitchen table recently, documents pertaining to his brother’s service spread around him.
Keenan has become somewhat of a sleuth over the years to piece together the circumstances of his brother's death — tracking down contacts, following their leads and gathering any bit of information he could find.
“It’s been a long journey but, just when things start slowing down, something else comes up,” he said.
The family was dealt a victory in 1999 when his brother posthumously was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest medal for bravery in combat.
But Keenan, while happy with the Navy Cross, said his brother was nominated for the Medal of Honor, though that nomination was lost. He’s enlisted the help of U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney D-2nd District, to upgrade his brother’s award.
“This isn’t going to be an easy thing,” he admits.
Manny Meneses, Courtney’s military and veterans’ representative, agreed that it’s a long shot, but said it has the best shot of the cases he’s worked on.
Joseph Keenan was one of nine siblings, including seven brothers who all served in the military. Known as Joe by his family, he joined the Navy after high school and trained as a hospital corpsman. He arrived in Korea in February 1953, on Friday the 13th, Michael Keenan points out.
At the time “a vicious kind of combat had developed in Korea,” according to a 1999 article in Navy Medicine about Joe being awarded the Navy Cross. “Small unit raids from dug-in lines of trenches and bunkers had replaced grand scale campaigns of movement.”
Joe was assigned to Company F, Second Battalion, First Marine Division. He was stationed in an area known as Nevada Cities, losing his life during a five-day battle there. The Marines reportedly suffered their worst losses of the Korean War in the Nevada Cities Battle.
On the night of March 26, 1953, a force of about 3,500 Chinese attacked Marine combat outposts named Reno, Carson and Vegas, collectively called the Nevada Cities. The Chinese quickly overran Reno, and two platoons of Marines with Joe as a corpsman were sent in to try to retake it.
Joe first was struck in the hand by shrapnel. He waved off help from another corpsman, and continued searching for and treating wounded Marines. Then a nearby blast sent numerous shards of shrapnel into the area where he was working; Joe was struck in the head. He staggered down to an aid station, where he was bandaged and told to lie down and stay there.
Since he still could walk, he went back into the action. Another blast sent chunks of dirt into his eyes, partially blinding him. He and two other corpsmen continued to look for wounded Marines. They found one, placed him on a stretcher, and headed back. Incoming mortar rounds caused them to drop the stretcher many times, but Joe, according to reports, kept urging them on. Joe died after being hit in the head again with shrapnel.
Years later, Michael Keenan tracked down a battle surgeon, Dr. William Beaven, who confirmed he’d written Joe up for the Medal of Honor that night. With new testimony and clarification of actions, Michael Keenan and the rest of Joe’s family are requesting his Navy Cross be upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
For the family, it’s about cementing Joe’s legacy.
“Any point after the first wound, he could’ve gone back and taken himself out of the battle, you know,” Michael Keenan said.
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