CASPER, Wyo. — At monuments erected and post offices named in his honor, in front of Marines he gave his life to save, Patricia Littleton Duncan says this about her brother-in-law: “He was always courageous in everything he did and was he ever full of spunk. A gallant, honorable man.”
Patricia tells about Crystal Cave, when she, Herbert (Hal) A. Littleton and two friends went cave creeping in Piedmont, S.D. A flashlight hit the ceiling and woke up the bats. Hal plucked one from a girl’s hair and pulled his coat over their heads as the bats swooped down.
“We laughed and told of how proud we were of how gallantly Hal took care of the bat and us,” she tells crowds who gather in Hal’s honor.
“When we say gallant, when they say he gallantly threw his body over the hand grenade, he was always that way,” Patricia told the Star-Tribune recently from her home in Douglas. “He was always taking care of everyone.”
Patricia, 81, talks about her brother-in-law Hal whenever she can. She travels the country to speak about him at memorial dedications and post office naming ceremonies. Duncan grew up with Hal, married his brother M.K. and is one of the last living relatives who knew Hal while he was alive. She has made it her mission to tell people who he was and what he did; to make sure people remember the name Pfc. Herbert A. Littleton and the act that earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The Three Musketeers
Hal was born July 1, 1930, in Mena, Ark. His family moved to South Dakota and he went to grade school in Spearfish. That’s where he met Patricia. She, Hal and Hal’s older brother, Chuck, were called The Three Musketeers because they ran together all the time.
On Saturday nights, the gang went dancing in Beulah, Spearfish or Whitewood, S.D. They danced until midnight before driving to Broadus, Mont., where they could dance until 2 or 3 in the morning. They sang songs on the car ride home to keep themselves awake, Patricia said.
On Sundays, Hal and Patricia went rabbit hunting and Hal taught her how to shoot.
The two dated for about a year. Then, Hal’s oldest brother, M.K., returned from the Navy. Pat and M.K. married about six months later, in December 1947. Hal dated Patricia’s girlfriend.
They stayed close friends, though. When Patricia and M.K. moved to Nampa, Idaho, followed soon after by Hal’s parents, Hal decided to relocate there when he came out of the Marines. He worked for the American Bell Telephone Co.
Leo Holmes started working at the telephone company on the day the Korean War broke out. Most of the guys working there were just out of school; Hal could already climb the poles like a pro.
“Hal had already been out of high school and then on to the Marines, so you know he was pretty cocky,” said Holmes, now 81 and living in Caldwell, Idaho. Decades later, he would lead an effort to name the new Nampa post office after the Marine.
Two of Pat’s five sons were born while Hal was still alive, and Hal was a doting uncle. He carried 1½-year-old Rocky on his shoulders and took Rickey to hang with the guys.
Pat’s third son, Randy, was born the night before Hal’s funeral services. The hospital wouldn’t let Pat leave, so she stood at the window, hoping to hear the honor guard salute.
Hal joined the Marines in July 1948 and trained at Camp Pendleton near San Diego. When he got out, he relocated to Nampa, Idaho — where his brother, Patricia and parents had moved — but stayed in the Marine Reserves. He was called back to duty in September 1950 and shipped to Korea.
Machine gunner William “Buddy” Hixon only knew Pfc. Herbert Littleton as the radio man with C Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. Hixon and a buddy used to watch Hal lug the radio around, and though Herbert never asked for help, sometimes they offered.
“It weighed about 60 pounds; it was a burden on a man,” said Hixon, now 83 and living in Arlington, Ky.
They never thought about that antenna, sticking out like a great beacon for enemy snipers, Hixon said. Knock out the communication man, and you’re knocking out the artillery. Had they thought of it, they probably would have helped anyway.
To fellow members of the Forward Observation Team, Hal talked about Barbara, his girl back home, and how he wanted to get his high school diploma, a college degree and build a life for her. He wanted to make corporal, according to an article, “Lookout, Lieutenant,” written by the Rev. Timothy Mullvany for the Pfc. Herbert A. Littleton Medal of Honor Monument dedication on Sept. 7, 2000, in Spearfish.
Hal wrote to his mother and to Patricia when he could. Patricia wrote him every day.
Patricia’s tears, fallen over many readings, smudge the last letter she ever got from Hal: “Hi Pat,” it reads, in neat slanted cursive.
“Got your letter this morning. Sure is nice of you to write to me. You know, you and mother are just about the only one’s writing to me … Hurry and get me a picture of you and M.K. and the babies.”
On April 22, 1951, Hixon’s machine-gun crew had set up a position on Hill 44, about 1,000 yards from Horseshoe Ridge near Chungchon, Korea. They knew the Chinese were preparing to attack.
Shortly after 1 a.m., two Chinese soldiers crept within three feet of their gun barrels. The gunners opened fire.
Hal was on watch about 30 yards behind Hixon. When he heard gunshots, he woke the rest of his team and moved to a better position to see the battle, calling in artillery fire targets.
“The team had it cornered so perfect, it seemed like when a shell came from us, that it almost sucked all the air from the atmosphere. Then there would be an explosion,” Hixon said.
Hal’s team scrambled to reach his vantage point just as a grenade flew over the ridge and rolled into their midst. According to witnesses, Hal shouted “Lookout, Lieutenant!” and threw his body over the explosive. He took the full force of the explosion in his chest, and the blast threw him several feet through the air, witnesses said in testimony for his Medal of Honor citation.
Directly, Hal saved the three men in his Forward Observation Team — 1st Lt. William Donovan, Cpl. Robert Hunter and Cpl. Raymond Miller.
As important, he saved the radio, allowing the team to direct the artillery through the rest of the battle.
“Pfc. Littleton’s actions were instrumental in our ability to continue directing fire effectively on the enemy and to repulse the enemy counter attack,” Lt. Donovan wrote in his testimony.
Hixon wouldn’t hear about Hal’s sacrifice until years later. He had a battle to fight just then, and it continued throughout the night and day.
When it ended, Hixon’s machine gun crew was the only one left out of six. A commander told him that 234 C Company Marines had gone up that hill on April 22.
How many were left? Hixon asked.
Who can say how many of them would have survived had the C Company radio been blown up by that grenade?
Patricia’s mission began when her son Randy was still in school. He brought home an Idaho state history textbook and told his mother that his uncle Hal had not been mentioned as a Congressional Medal of Honor winner.
Patricia called the governor’s office right then and quickly got the omission fixed. Soon after, both Idaho and South Dakota wanted to claim Hal as their own. (Idaho won.)
But Patricia believes her work is not finished. She wants her brother-in-law to get his credit, whenever it is due.
She keeps mountains of files about Herbert’s service and awards. There is a field named for him in Korea, a hill in Twentynine Palms, Calif., and an air station in Iwakuni, Japan.
Mena, Ark., Spearfish, S.D., and Caldwell, Idaho, all built monuments in his honor. Nampa, Idaho, named its post office after him. Camp Pendleton named a street for him and gave the Littleton Memorial Rifle Marksmanship Trophy to three Marines this year.
When she can, Patricia goes to these events and lists the medals Hal earned: The Purple Heart, National Defense Medal, U.S. Presidential Unit Citation, Republic of Korea Presidential Citation and others.
She tells her audience that Hal loved baseball and how her son Rickey used his catcher’s mitt through high school. How she and Hal used to set cans on fence posts near the Nampa city dump to see who could shoot them off the fastest, and how sometimes she would win.
“It was said that I could shoot the buttons off his shirt without touching a piece of fabric,” she says in her speeches. “He taught me to be the marksman I am today.”
Patricia spent Aug. 16-20 in Alexandria, Va., at the reunion of “Suicide Charlie” Company, 1st Division, 7th Marines. She told the Marines, some of whom were on Hill 44 when Hal jumped on the grenade, about how she used to find a rose at Hal’s gravesite in Nampa, long after his death, and how she always figured it was from Barbara, the girl he one day hoped to marry. She later found out it was an ex-girlfriend, which proves how much people who knew him loved him, she said.
The company accepted Patricia as one of their own, told her that she would be invited to all their gatherings so that she could talk about Hal. As long as she can go, they will never forget.
“It was so silent in there while I was talking, you could hear a pin drop on the floor. And I’ve never had so many kisses in my life,” she told the Star-Tribune.
In the speech, she told the crowd about the last time she saw Hal, how he hugged her and told her to take care of her two little boys.
She finished her remarks the same way she always finishes:
“He gave me a big kiss and said, ‘I may not be coming back, but I will come back a hero.’
“And he sure as hell did.”