West, who’ll turn 78 Sept. 2, is one of just two Medal of Honor winners still living in Kentucky. He was awarded the nation’s highest military honor for heroic action as a private first class during the Korean War.
Shown as part of the program was a documentary filmed by New Yorker Frank DuPont about West’s journey from an orphanage in central Kentucky to Wurtland, a job on the railroad, and time out to go to Korea with the Army.
The film was 10 years in the talking stage because West -- who doesn’t like to talk about himself -- at first wouldn’t allow DuPont to make it.
Then when they told him it was to raise money for the old church and other improvements in the town, where he and his wife, Jane, have lived for the past 55 years, he submitted to the project.
“Ernie wouldn’t agree to it for 10 years and probably more, then when he saw it he liked it,” said event organizer Kim Harris.
DuPont, West said, not only did a good job on the documentary of part of his life, but turned out to be “one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.”
Harris showed the documentary, on disc, after the meal, and hoped West wouldn’t back down on sharing some thoughts from his experiences.
Ernest E. West was born in nearby Russell but wound up being raised in the orphanage at the Methodist Children’s Home in Versailles, Ky. He came to Wurtland when he was 17 and landed a job in the railroad yards and repair shops run by the C&O Railroad, now CSX Corp.
Then the Army called him and a lot of other young men to stop communist North Korea from taking over South Korea.
It was on the night of Oct. 12, 1952, when West, fighting with Company L in the 14th Infantry Regiment with the 25th Infantry Division, went out as a member of an eight-man patrol to destroy an enemy outpost.
They were ambushed and suffered heavy casualties. The enemy was rolling hand grenades down a hill on them. The soldier in charge of the platoon suffered mangled legs from an explosion and went down. The 21-year-old West took charge. He had those who could still walk fall back and set up a line of defense. He carried the wounded man to safety, killing three enemy soldiers with rifle fire on the way.
He returned to the others through withering fire, losing an eye to a fragment from an exploding grenade. He assisted two other wounded comrades to safety, killing three more enemy soldiers with his rifle as they went.
“When we started out on that patrol, we made an agreement that we would not leave anybody -- that we would get them out whatever it took,” West told the Portsmouth Daily Times in an interview at the Greenup County War Memorial off U.S. 23 between Wurtland and Greenup.
The memorial, built with donations raised by a committee that included West, names those in the various military services who made the ultimate sacrifice from World War I through Desert Storm.
“We were one of the Memorials able to get our hands on a World War II boat,” he said, pointing to the landing craft designed to deposit troops on a beachhead.
The left side of the Memorial carries the name of Greenup County’s other Medal of Honor winner -- John W. Collier, who lived in Worthington, which borders Wurtland on the east, and is also in Greenup County.
The Medal of Honor was awarded posthumously to Collier.
“You have to have died in combat for your name to be here,” West said.
Collier, who would have been 80 this past April, was also awarded the medal for his heroics with the Army during the Korean War.
On Sept. 19, 1950, Collier and his Company C came under intense fire from
a machine gun nest above them. Collier and three other volunteers pushed forward in an attempt to wipe it out, but were twice repelled.
On the third attempt, Collier moved out ahead by himself, into the face of enemy fire. He took the machine gun nest out, killing at least four enemy soldiers in the process.
As he came back down the hill and rejoined the squadron, a grenade landed in their midst.
Shouting a warning, Collier threw himself on the grenade, smothering the explosion with his body and saving the others from death.
U.S. 23, as it passes through Greenup County from Grant Bridge at South Portsmouth to the Boyd County line, is named the Collier-West Memorial Highway.
Wurtland Union Church and Meeting House operated from 1850 to the mid-1990s. It’s the oldest still standing, unaltered, frame church in the county, Harris said.
She said enough money has been raised to disassemble it and put it together again using the original material and the architect’s plans.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.