Some men are larger than life. In the case of one man that was true in both a literal and figurative sense – making him a superhero worthy of America’s highest honor.
David Bruce Bleak was born on February 27, 1932, in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Growing up the seventh of nine children in a remote farming town, he was bored and quit high school to work in various jobs including farming, ranching, and on the railroads.
By the time he was 18, he stood 6-feet (and a little more than) 5-inches tall. He weighed about 250 pounds; not all of which was muscle. That did not concern him. What did concern him was his lack of opportunities and his desire to see more of the world. His chance came when the Korean peninsula exploded.
As part of its agreement with the Allies, the Soviet Union had invaded the northern half of Korea in 1945 to defeat the occupying Japanese. The southern portion, meanwhile, fell to the Americans. The Japanese were defeated and WWII ended in 1945, however, neither the Soviets nor the Americans wanted to give up what they had.
Although they pulled out officially, each left their mark. Korea was therefore split between the communist north and the capitalist south at the 38th parallel. Meant to be temporary, it turned out to be otherwise. By 1948, North Korea and South Korea had their own separate governments – each claiming to represent the other.
This resulted in a civil war as each tried to absorb the other. Making the situation worse, the Soviet Union and China supported the North, while the US and its allies sided with the South. WWII was over, but the Cold War had just begun.
Events escalated until June 25, 1950, when North Korea invaded the South. The UN ordered a ceasefire, and unsurprisingly, was ignored. So two days later, it passed the UN Security Council 83: Complaint of Aggression upon the Republic of Korea (meaning the North).
To make sure their “complaint” was taken seriously, the twenty-one member nations sent UN Forces into the region. America supplied some 88% of those forces.
Bleak saw an opportunity and joined the US Army on November 1 that year. He was sent to Fort Riley, Texas for his basic combat training and was chosen for medical duty. He was assigned to the medical company of the 223rd Infantry Regiment, 40th Infantry Division of the California Army National Guard.
Based in Camp Cooke in Lompoc, California, he underwent further advanced medical training before being shipped to Korea in January 1952. He did so well they promoted him to the rank of Sergeant shortly after his arrival. Then he was sent to the 38th parallel.
The 223rd operated in a mountainous region near the village of Minari-gol – now in North Korea, but at that time part of South Korea. By then, fighting at the frontline had stabilized as UN forces had blocked the North Korean invasion. Despite this, casualties remained high, so Bleak operated as a field medic on the front lines.
Months later, on June 14, he volunteered to join a 20-man reconnaissance patrol. According to intelligence, the Chinese were using Hill 499 to the north of Minari-gol. The patrol’s mission was to capture a Chinese soldier (or two) for interrogation purposes.
They left the UN lines at 4:30 PM and began climbing the hill at dusk. To distract the Chinese, F Company of the 223rd Infantry launched an attack from the west – hoping to distract the enemy away from Bleak’s group.
Their intel was correct. Chinese soldiers were operating on Hill 499. Unfortunately, they opened fire on Bleak’s group, hitting some men.
The medic did all he could to treat and stabilize the wounded. Much of the firing was coming from a nearby trench, so Bleak rushed at it despite the hail of bullets that somehow missed him.
Jumping in, he tackled one of the soldiers and broke his neck. A second rushed him, only to be grabbed and have his windpipe crushed. The third Chinese fought briefly before Bleak stabbed him with his combat knife.
With the trench secured, he continued to treat more of his friends when a grenade came flying at them. Amazingly, it bounced off the helmet of the man standing next to him before disappearing.
Bleak pushed the man to the ground, threw himself over the poor guy, and just in time – the grenade exploded. Mercifully, neither man was hurt or killed. Even more fortunately, the other man survived Bleak’s weight.
The patrol captured some Chinese soldiers and began their way back down the hill when the second attack came – hitting three Americans. Bleak ran to help them, but a bullet caught him in the leg; it barely slowed him down.
He treated two, but one was too injured to move on his own. Bleak picked him up and continued his way downhill when two more Chinese soldiers popped out before them. Annoyed, the medic put his patient down and charged.
The soldiers watched in amazement as the huge American bore down on them at full speed. Like a pair of cymbals, Bleak grabbed their heads and bashed them together so hard those nearby heard a loud crack; followed shortly after by two thuds.
No one stayed around long enough to find out if the Chinese had died or were unconscious. They had their captives. All twenty returned to their base alive, although a third were wounded – including Bleak. Despite his injury, he returned to duty on July 9.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave Bleak a Medal of Honor at the White House on October 27, 1953.