Life through my myopic eyes.

Bravery, a State of Mind or Being…


Lieutenant Mamo Habtewold

I read an article today about an Ethiopian soldier who was awarded the US Award for Gallantry. In 1951 he was part of a force sent by the Ethiopian King Haile Selassie as a show of support for the American lead United Nations force that was fighting in Korea.

Selassie was a man who practised what he preached. He had in the past poured scorn on the UN when it failed, as the League of Nations, to send help when his country was invaded by Italy in 1935. Being a staunch ally of the US King Selassie thought that the ‘call to arms’ sent out by the UN to help South Korea in it’s battle against North Korea and the Chinese was the perfect opportunity to show how support should be given.

King Selassie sent in excess of 3000 troops. Most of whom were drawn from his own imperial guards. After speaking to the men and telling them that he expected them to bring their flag back with them. The three battalions left to become part of the US 7th Division.

These battalions fought in a large number of battles in Korea including the infamous ‘Pork Chop Hill‘ which claimed so many lives from both sides.

The soldier who received the US Award for Gallantry was, then, Lieutenant Mamo Habtewold. He says that when the first Ethiopian troops returned in 1951, they all spoke of the battles they’d taken part in and pretty much boasted about their time there.

When the Ethiopians joined the newly ‘de-segregated’ 7th Division they were given an elevated status from the US black soldiers already there. Mama said that discrimination was not an issue.  “You know Ethiopia has a 3,000-year history as an independent country. We Ethiopians were proud and boasting that we were Ethiopians. We don’t care about any colour. The Americans didn’t call us ‘Negro’ as we would be angry,” he says.

Mamo went on to say, “We were the best fighters. The three Ethiopian battalions fought 253 battles, and no Ethiopian soldier was taken prisoner in the Korean War,” he says. “That was our Ethiopian motto: ‘Never be captured on the war field.”

Peace talks were stalled and Mamo and his men were part of the Division that was assigned to the hilly territory that included Pork Chop Hill. The fighting was long, bloody and fierce. On one night in May 1953 Mamo lead a 14 man patrol down the hill to scout out the land below. They had one American soldier along and very soon the 15 strong patrol was surrounded by Chinese forces that were 300 strong. A ratio of twenty Chinese soldiers to each one of the Ethiopian patrol.

Four Ethiopians were killed along with the American Corporal. Everyone else was wounded. Using weapons taken from dead Chinese soldiers, Mamo searched throughout the night to find a working radio so he could call in the Artillery units for support. After a long search, Mamo found a radio and Artillery was called in and support came from other troops.

When the remainder of the 14 man patrol came back to their base camp, only Mamo was able to stand. He alone walked back to their bunker while his comrades were sent to the medical units for treatment.

When the war ended, the Ethiopians returned to a heroes welcome. Through the entire conflict they had only lost 120 men and had no men taken prisoner.

Mamo says that at one point during the long night of battle with the Chinese, he thought of killing himself. He had given his pistol to another soldier and when he asked for it back, the soldier refused. That action was what prompted Mamo to search for Chinese weapons to use against the forces attacking them. He did not, apart from that one moment, think of suicide again.

All of which begs the question: What exactly is bravery? I’ve heard it described many ways. The best I’ve ever heard is this, ‘Bravery is knowing that all the odds are against you, but you carry on anyway.’

Of course the above definition of bravery suggests that the individuals being brave are aware of it. In other words they are aware that they are being brave. I don’t really feel that this is the case.

In Mamo’s story, at one point he wanted to end it all. It was only when his soldier refused to return his gun that he changed his mind. But the way he tells it, it was a ‘moment’ an instant of decision that came and went just as quickly. He then continued his battle against incredible odds until they were rescued.

A rescue only possible because Mamo found a radio that worked. So in his instance at least the bravery he exhibited was more a combination of a state of mind and being.

I think of men in battle like Mamo and wonder at their courage and bravery. I wonder if I could or would have acted so well under fire.

I had a great uncle who was a runner in the WWI. He was a message runner for Col MacArthur (later General MacArthur). My uncle would take the message and put it into the dispatch case and head out through the forest towards his objective. By the time he would reach his destination, he had been through his own personal hell.

General MacArthur circa: 1930

My uncle would arrive with the case clutched firmly in his hands. His uniform had been blasted off his body by bombs and shrapnel. He was numb and deafened by the sounds of the explosions. He would hand his message over and after resting and getting re-outfitted he would head back with the reply. I cannot imagine such bravery as this.

He had to know that each and every time he was used as a runner that this would be the likely result. Yet as far as I know, he never refused. This bravery cost him dearly. By the time he was mustered out of the army, he was shell shocked and obviously suffering from post traumatic stress which was not understood in those days.

To get him through each day, he drank. Copious amounts. It was thought that he was just a ‘rummy’ a drunk and he was looked down upon by a lot of people. It was only years later that the family learned of post traumatic stress syndrome and it’s toll on the people who suffered from it.

The fact that this man would get up everyday and face his inner demons with the help of alcohol is another form of bravery. He had no one to help him and no one who understood. Yet, like the running he’d done in the war, he still did it.

Why?

Is it because  he felt a sort of duty or because he could not think of any alternative?

What do you think? Is bravery a state of mind or is it a state of being. Do we consciously decide to be brave, or is it something we just do?  I’d be willing to bet that neither Mamo Habtewold nor my great uncle could tell you.

*For more information on Ethiopia’s role in the Korean War follow this link:  An Ethiopian hero of the Korean War*

During battle, soldiers ran the messages, instead of ‘calling it in’

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Categorised in: BBC news, History, Korean War, War

7 Responses »

  1. What is a ‘rummy’?
    I know I often decide to be brave, but it could have happened (my bravery) without my realising it, for sure.
    Maybe in that case it isn’t bravery for the person doing the deed, it’s simply their personal fortitude. But it appears brave to an audience. You hear people say they didn’t think twice about performing something deemed immensely brave, but it’s relative. Your great uncle is brave to us: perhaps for him, he didn’t consider himself so.

    • Excellent way to put it Zoe. I do think it might just boil down to something being brave after the fact by someone on the outside looking in. As you said, to an audience (aka readers or viewers of an event) it does appear brave. To the individual going through the trauma, bravery doesn’t even enter their realm of thought. Thanks for the insightful comment! :-)

    • Excellent way to put it Zoe. I do think it might just boil down to something being brave after the fact by someone on the outside looking in. As you said, to an audience (aka readers or viewers of an event) it does appear brave. To the individual going through the trauma, bravery doesn’t even enter their realm of thought. Thanks for the insightful comment! :-) Sorry, a ‘rummy’ used to be slang for an alcoholic. Same as: soak, rum-dum, etc. Back in the old days before political correctness and the awareness that alcoholism was a disease.

  2. I really think it takes a bit both, and I think it certainly depends upon the character of the individual. If a person has the tendency, in their everyday lives, to put others first, a call to action such as this will be met with the same, or at least similar, conviction, regardless of how harrowing the obstacle. A lot of that, I think, has so much to do with how we’re raised. Some people will always see the world through a small lens, and so their own concerns and ambitions are put first. But there are certainly those who understand the big picture, who understand, as in the case of war, that their potential sacrifice could mean the difference between 5 people dying and 500. The going rate for fewer casualties, in the end, just might be your own life. For some, who really understand the big picture, they’d pay the price with a clear enough head, especially in the moment when action MUST happen. I think it’s a mix of honor and instinct.

    The husband of my Grandma’s sister (Great Uncle? Still not sure how that works.) fought in WWII and lost his leg while covering his men. He passed away a few years ago, and I remember never being close to him. After the war, he really shut himself away, and didn’t do a lot of speaking to anyone, save his wife. He’d never tell you he was hero or anything; just that he did what he had to. For some, like I said, it’s an instinct or reflex in the moment; a disregard for the Self in favor of ‘doing what’s right’ or noble to aid another, your family, or your country.

    I can’t speak with any kind of authority, as I certainly have no experience in war. I won’t embarass myself by pretending otherwise. But I have had a lot family that I’ve known personally, who’ve served in every war this country’s been involved with since WWI, and I’ve heard my share of personal accounts, to say the least. I feel like people used to have greater character, more integrity. And what’s more, they understood what they were fighting for. People, made of the right stuff, find strength in knowing that they have someone to protect; someone that’s counting on them to help them through. It can empower us to act selflessly.

    One story of selflessness, that I’ve never been able to forget, involved my Mom during her college years while living in Boston, long before I was born. She used the subway often, and early one morning, as she was waiting for it to arrive, some guy snuck up on her, shoved her off the platform and onto the tracks. The man hurried away and wasn’t caught. A young man saw what happened and hurried to my Mom’s aid, pulling her back up to the platform. A few days later, Mom went to use the subway again, only this time she didn’t stand on the platform, she sat on a bench in front of it. As she waited, she saw what looked to be a homeless man deliberately jump from the platform and lie down on the tracks. Everyone started panicking, and a young couple came near to my Mom to see what was happening. The young man saw the homeless man on the tracks, and without a care for himself, he leapt down to help the man back up. But as soon as he approached the homeless man, the prankster leapt up from the tracks and ran off into the darkness of the tunnel, laughing. The subway train was arriving then, closing in from the opposite side of the tunnel, and the young man was ultimately trapped. He looked up to the woman he’d arrived with and said ‘I love you’, before being killed by the oncoming train. Mom found out days later that the woman had been the selfless man’s wife for less than two weeks.

    Was it strictly a state of being OR a state of mind that prompted the man to commit himself to the dangerous task that cost him his life? I really don’t think so. I think it’s both. Some just move to act, through a sense of honor and instinct, and a lot of that, I think, has to do with the immediacy of the situation. You’ll always want to believe that you could be that brave, that selfless, but obviously none of us will ever really know what we’re truly made of until we’re either forced to act or live with the consequences of having not acted.

    Really great post, Mike! Thanks for sharing this story with us; it was pretty incredible! :)

    • As you said, it appears that bravery or brave acts or even selfless acts are just that, acts. A spur of the moment decision that may affect many or a few. Or in the sad case of the young man and the subway, one. Either way, the very occurrence of the act itself makes it one of active doing versus passive thought. It has always fascinated me, this question of bravery and the ‘heroics’ necessary to commit the same acts of bravery. Thanks for sharing your point of view and your own stories. Intelligent comments are always welcome and, from you at least, are a constant happening. Cheers mate! :-)

  3. I think bravery is just fortitude. It’s pushing on with something when you might otherwise feel like giving up. It’s not always about battle; it can be personal demons, a life goal, asking a girl on a date, etc. It’s doing something that you’re not comfortable with, possibly to the point that you eventually become comfortable with it and find a new bravery in something else. It can be small, like stepping outside the door, or huge, like facing the crossfire of an enemy force to deliver a message. Either way it’s bravery, whether the person knows it or not.

    • Nicely and succinctly put. There are many different forms of bravery. Unfortunately it is the form that gets the most ‘publicity’ or notice that garners all the attention while the more personal ones, facing personal demons or phobias are just as life affecting and hard to face. Great comment! Thank you for sharing. Cheers mate1 :-)

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