Charles George VA Medical Center - Asheville, NC

The Quiet Warrior from Birdtown

Charles George at Basic Training in Ft. Jackson, SC

Charles George
Basic Training
Ft. Jackson, SC

Shortly before shipping off to join 45th Infantry Division in Korea, Charles George made one last stop at the Cherokee school in the Qualla Boundary. He talked with the children about serving their country, serving their people and staying true to the Cherokee warrior tradition. The words he spoke echoed those of his elders, words that embody the beliefs of his people. At 20 years old he was more than a new recruit volunteering for combat in Korea; he was a warrior following in the footsteps of his ancestors, going into combat to protect his people.

Like all Native Americans, the Eastern Band Cherokee have a complicated history with the United States Government, riddled with betrayal and broken promises. Separated from most of their tribe who live in Oklahoma, the Eastern Band remain in a small portion of their ancestral lands deep within the cool, lush mountains of Western North Carolina. While fiercely loyal to the United States, the Cherokee preserve and honor their language and customs on land they have loved for hundreds of years. It may be a new government, but theirs is an old Nation In 1952, the war was in Korea and the political goal was to stop communist expansion in Asia. However, for Charles George, the fight was to protect his country, people and his beloved mountains

Extremely patriotic, the Eastern Band of Cherokee have a long tradition of US military service. During the first World War, every able-bodied man from the Eastern Band served his country – a country that had yet to allow them to vote. When the United States entered World War II, Eastern Band Cherokees volunteered again. While only a couple of thousand Cherokee lived on the Boundary during the 1940s, hundreds of men and women left the Qualla to serve their county. When the Korean War raged, it was natural for Charles George to follow the warrior tradition of his people

 

Charles George
Infantry Training
Ft. Benning, GA

His parents named him Tsali, which translates into English as Charlie or Charles. In Cherokee history, Tsali is a name synonymous with self-sacrifice. In 1838 during the midst of Cherokee removal to Oklahoma, the legendary hero Tsali selflessly gave his life, so that some of his people could remain in the ancestral homeland. Carrying the name of an ancient hero of his people, Charles George was a quiet young man growing up in the small, isolated mountain community of Birdtown. The George family home place was situated beside the Oconaluftee River, and Charles (or Charlie, as his family and friends called him) would often spend his afternoons swimming and fishing in the river. Always taking time to speak to passers-by and offer them fish he had caught that day, Charlie was someone who thought beyond himself. It was instinctual. He was of the Bird Clan, he was Cherokee, and he was an American. When his country went to war, Charlie could not stay in the Qualla Boundary. He was compelled by honor, tradition, and instinct to take up arms and protect his country.

In late 1952 the Korean War was limited to fighting over small portions of land. Troops from both sides would slog it out in savage combat and retreat to fortified positions. The goal was to diminish the enemy's strength before making a major assault. The two armies were like boxers standing toe-to-toe in the ring, trading brutal punches, returning to their corners for a moment's rest, and getting back up to fight again

PFC Charles George was assigned to Company C, 179th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division and during the late autumn of 1952, the Thunderbird Division was fighting the Chinese in an area just north of Seoul. In mid-November orders were given for Company C to engage the enemy and capture a prisoner for interrogation. After nightfall on November 29, Company C launched their assault on the enemy with Charles George, Armando Ruiz, and Marion Santo on point. Heavy arms fire and a rugged slope slowed their advance, and mortar rounds showered around them. Wounded soldiers cried out for help as the troops pressed onward. Cresting the hill, PFC George and Armando Ruiz leaped into the enemy trenches. It was hand to hand combat. Then it was quiet. The enemy had been silenced.

After securing a prisoner for interrogation, the patrol leader called out to George, Ruiz, and Santo, ordering them to provide cover. American guns fell silent, and the patrol quickly began making their way back to camp while George, Ruiz, and Santo crouched silently in darkness. The men were alone. The patrol was on the move back to camp, Company C was behind them, and the men waited for the Chinese to retake the hill,

Charles George
Advanced Warfare Training
Japan, 1951

Weapons in hand and facing north, Charles George was on the left side of the trench, Marion Santo was in the middle, and Armando Ruiz secured the far right flank. When the enemy grenade landed, Corporal Ruiz didn't see it hit the ground; all he heard was Charlie yelling for him to get out of the way. PFC Santo was closest to the grenade. Before fully realizing what was happening, Santo felt a huge jolt that sent him flying. It wasn't the grenade concussion that caused him to go airborne; it was Charlie. PFC George shoved Santo with everything he had, turned back to the danger, and threw himself on the grenade, absorbing the full impact with his body. In an instant, Charles George had recognized the dire situation and took control to save his people.

Mortally wounded, PFC George remained conscious. Rolling him over, Santo and Ruiz saw the intense pain in George's eyes. As life drained from his body, Charlie knew there was one last thing he could do to help his friends. Crying out in pain would have alerted the oncoming Chinese to their position and assured that all three men would have died that night. PFC George did not make a sound - not even a whimper.

As quickly they could, Ruiz and Santo carried Charlie back to the aid station where medics tried in vain to save him. Nothing could be done to stop the inevitable, and in the early hours of November 30, 1952, Charles George succumbed to his wounds. The young warrior from the Qualla Boundary had traveled to the far side of the world, fought up the rugged slopes of Korea, engaged the enemy in brutal combat, and with full knowledge of the consequences, Charles George gave his life to save his brothers in arms.

Armando Ruiz and Marion Santo survived that battle at Songnae-dong and the remainder of the Korean War. These men, and all soldiers of combat, carry scars upon their memories that no one can fully understand. Every experience is different and only those who serve shoulder to shoulder in battle can relate to what happened. Few soldiers have ever witnessed bravery in action like that of Charles George. Traumatic at the time and painful to relive, Ruiz and Santo did not dwell upon the horrors of Korea.

They returned to the United States, married, had families and lived each day as a gift from God. Marion Santo never misses a day saying a prayer for Charles George. Every year on November 20, Marion Santo lights a candle for Charlie.

Cherokee, especially the Eastern Band, give great honor to warrior tradition and warriors. To this day, whenever a Veteran enters a room everyone goes silent. This respect is given because a Veteran, especially a war Veteran, entering a room might be coming to share important news or wisdom, so it is essential to be quiet and listen for anything the warrior may say.

Charles George was never able to become a Veteran; he was never able to return to his beloved family and friends in Birdtown and fish the Oconaluftee River. Even though he died in the Korean darkness, Charles and his heroism are remembered and honored. Marion Santo wrote the citation, and two years after his death, PFC Charles George was awarded our nation's highest honor: the Medal of Honor.

Parents of Charles George
Proudly holding the Medal of Honor
awarded to their son Charles.

His parents never learned English and had never ventured beyond the Qualla Boundary until they received an invitation from the President of the United States to travel to Washington, DC and receive the Medal of Honor on their son's behalf. They journeyed into an unknown land where people spoke a language they could not understand to receive the honor for their fallen son. PFC Geroge's father, Jacob did not know the history and traditional reverence for the United States Medal of Honor. Instead of placing it under glass and tucking it away in a corner of his home, Jacob would often carry the Medal in his pocket wrapped in a handkerchief. There was no need to put it away on a shelf, because the metal and ribbon connected him to Charlie. People would visit the George home, and Jacob would show them the medal and let people hold it. With honor, grief and pride, Jacob would often wear the medal at gatherings and celebrations.

Beyond his family, and beyond the Bird Clan, Charles George is remembered and honored. His legacy is an integral part of the Eastern Band community. Charles George is honored at the yearly Cherokee Fair, his 45th Infantry insignia is proudly displayed on the American Legion Post 143 uniform, and his story is taught in Cherokee schools. Named in his honor are a bridge, a school gymnasium, a US Army camp in Korea, and the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, which serves over 37,000 veterans in Western North Carolina.

Had it not been for the Korean War, Charles George may have lived a long, simple, unremarkable life in the Appalachian mountains. However, in 1950 his country went to war, and Charlie (Tsali) left Birdtown in order to take the warrior's path. He volunteered for duty knowing that he might be required to kill or die in order to protect his brothers. The men that Charles George saved were not Cherokee, they were not even from Western North Carolina, but Marion Santo and Armando Ruiz were Charlie's brothers. Knowing his heritage,  knowing who he was named for, and being the type of person he was, the heroism of Charles George was a natural act, for he was always dedicated to others above self.

Medal of Honor
Awarded to Charles George

 

 
Grave Marker for Charles George
Yellow Hill Cemetary, Cherokee, NC 

 

 
Oconaluftee River
Photo taken near George Homeplace in Birdtown, NC