An Intrepid American Hero
Congressional Medals of Honor are shiny and blue. They come in a narrow black box. So, when Sam Coursen was handed one by General Omar Bradley, he really didn't know what was inside. You would have to excuse Sam. He was only fourteen months old. You see, the medal, the nation's highest award for heroism, was given in honor of his father, Lt. Samuel Streit Coursen, Sr., United States Army. If you went to Dublin High School in the mid 1960s, you knew Little Sam. None of you here were lucky enough to have known Big Sam. So, I will tell you his story, the story of an intrepid American hero.
Samuel Streit Coursen, a son of New York accountant Wallace M. Coursen and his wife, Kathleen Howell, was born in Madison, New Jersey on the 4th day of August 1926. Sam was an outstanding athlete at Newark Academy. Sam entered the United States Military Academy in 1945.
Following Sam's graduation from the Point in 1949, he married his sweetheart, Evangeline "Evie" Sprague, a daughter of Captain Albert Sprague, of the United States Naval Depot at Lake Denmark, New Jersey. More than six decades have passed since their marriage. Evie, as she is known to her friends, remembered, "We had only a few years together and only one year of marriage, but it was the loveliest time of my life and was further blessed by the birth of my son Sam." "He was very good looking and was as nice as he was handsome," Evie fondly remembered. Former West Point classmate Philip Feir said, "I don't know when Sam met Evie Sprague. Never have I beheld a more complete happiness than theirs. My mind goes back to Sam coming down the ramp after receiving his diploma. And, there waiting for him at the bottom of the ramp was Evie. I think at that moment they were completely alone in that vast auditorium. Their marriage was . . . a perfect union."
After his early training at Fort Riley, the Coursens moved to Fort Benning, Georgia for a rigorous round of basic training at the Infantry School. After the war in Korea began in June 1950, Sam shipped out to Asia.
By mid September 1950, the forces of the United Nations, under the leadership of the United States, began preparations for the invasion of North Korea. On October 9, 1950, Sam's 1st Cavalry Division set out on the offensive, with his regiment, the 5th Cavalry, on the right flank. Sam was in his third day as commander of a platoon in Company C. The advance of the 5th regiment was stymied by North Korean positions in a trio of hills, fifteen miles northwest of Kaesong on October 12, 1950.
As C Company moved forward to its objective point, Hill 174, Coursen's platoon entered a camouflaged gun emplacement, one which they thought had been abandoned. When Lt. Coursen heard the cry of one of his men as he was ambushed by North Koreans, Coursen rushed to his aid. Without any regard for his personal safety, the six-foot, six-inch-tall West Pointer found himself entangled in a hand to hand fight with a squad of enemy defenders. When the skirmish was over, seven enemy soldiers were found dead, their heads smashed with the butt of Sam's rifle. Sam was dead too. The soldier, who Sam gave his life to save, was found alive. More important than rescuing a sole soldier, Coursen's dauntless actions neutralized the one impediment to the regiment's advance. The Division accomplished its mission by capturing Kumich that afternoon.
The early American successes wouldn't last long. The fighting was brutal, bloody and vicious, lasting until the summer of 1953. Lieutenants were among the first to die, prime targets for enemy sharpshooters as they scurried about attempting to put their men in position. Thirty-seven of Sam's classmates lost their lives in the war, eleven in the previous September alone.
Sam's body was buried with full military honors in the hallowed grounds of the cemetery at the United States Military Academy.
Sam Coursen hasn't been forgotten by his classmates, the Army, and his friends back in New Jersey. A year after his death, the athletic field at Newark Academy was dedicated to the school's war dead and named Coursen Memorial Field. At Fort Benning, Georgia where his son was born, the Infantry School named a rifle range for Sam. It adjoins one named for Gen. George S. Patton. There is a plaque in Cullum Hall at West Point honoring him, and one at Benning, too. The Baltusrol Golf Club at Springfield, New Jersey awards a silver cup, named for Coursen, to younger members who display the fallen hero's outstanding qualities.
The Army, in 1956, christened the Lt. Samuel S. Coursen, to ferry passengers between Manhattan and the First Army headquarters at Fort Jay, Governor's Island, New York. The ferry boat, which is still operating after fifty-four years, has carried the ordinary and the famous, including Queen Elizabeth and Russian leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Sam's roommate, Lt. Philip R. Feir, in a letter to Sam's parents wrote, "One of Sam's finest traits was his splendid sense of humor and optimistic outlook on life. Coupled with his zest for life, Sam had tremendous loyalty and respect for his fellow men."
After Sam's death, Evie remarried to Dr. Wyatt B. Pouncey. Dr. and Mrs. Pouncey moved to Dublin, where Dr. Pouncey practiced medicine at the VA Hospital. They had two daughters, Barbara and Elizabeth.
Some people have called it the Korean War, the "Forgotten War" or the "Unknown War." Too many others dubbed it the "Korean Conflict." Armies stand ready in conflicts. They kill in wars. It is important to remind ourselves, that the killing and dying in Korea should not be forgotten, nor should we ever forget the heroism of Lt. Coursen and thousands of others.
As for little Sam, his father's heroism has inspired him to be the best he can be by leveraging his own talents to become a successful executive with NCR, AT&T, and currently as CIO of Freescale Semiconductor. One of the highlights of his life came in 1999 when his father's classmates invited Sam to come to their 50th class reunion. He heard the stories of the father he never knew and the man whom he has grown to love and admire, the stories of a real American hero.
So, on this anniversary of the gallant death of the father of one of our own, let us all remember that it is well that war is so terrible that we may grow too fond of it. And, when you go to bed tonight, say a prayer for the soul of Lt. Samuel S. Coursen, Sr., who made the ultimate sacrifice for us on a Korean hillside, sixty years ago today.