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.


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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