b. 01/08/1899 Carlyle, Illinois. d. 24/08/1981 Berkeley, California.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 20-21/07/1950 Taejon, Korea.
Dean was born on August 1, 1899, in Carlyle, Illinois to Charles Watts Dean, who worked as a dentist, and Elizabeth Frishe Dean, who was of German descent. William Dean had two siblings, a brother named David and a sister named Elizabeth. Dean states in his biography his interest in the military began at a very young age, upon seeing the United States Military Academy cadets in the 1904 Saint Louis Exposition performing military drill. In his childhood, Dean was interested in physical fitness, and began weightlifting and running, activities he would continue throughout much of his life. His first jobs included selling magazines for spending money. Growing up in Carlyle, Dean was the town’s main paperboy for The Saturday Evening Post.
After graduating from high school, Dean applied to the US Military Academy, but was rejected. He then tried to enlist in the United States Army during World War I, but he was too young to do so without his parents’ permission, and his mother refused. Dean instead attended University of California at Berkeley studying pre-law. During this time, he also took a variety of side jobs, including a stevedore at the San Francisco docks, a motorman, and briefly as a patrolman for the Berkeley Police Department, where he worked under police chief August Vollmer. Dean originally sought to attain a Doctor of Law degree but only completed a Bachelor of Arts degree from Berkeley in 1922 before joining the Army.
Following the United States’ entry into World War II, Dean was promoted to the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel in 1941, and colonel in 1942. He was promoted to brigadier general later that year and made head of the Requirements Division in 1943. He held this office only briefly, before being assigned as assistant commander of the US 44th Infantry Division, under Major General James I. Muir in late 1943. The division was to sail for the European Theater and Dean went with them despite being injured shortly before departure in a flamethrower accident which claimed the lives of two other soldiers. Dean was promoted to major general in late 1943.
The 44th Infantry Division landed in France via Omaha Beach on September 15, 1944. It trained for a month before entering combat on October 18, 1944, when it relieved the US 79th Infantry Division in the vicinity of Foret de Parroy, east of Luneville, to take part in the Seventh United States Army drive to secure several passes in the Vosges Mountains. The division was hit by a heavy counterattack by forces of Nazi Germany on October 25–26. The attack was repulsed and the 44th remained in the sector for several weeks. On November 13, 1944, it attacked northeast, advancing through the Vosges Mountains east of Leintrey to Dossenheim, and capturing Avricourt, on November 17. The division then pushed on to liberate Strasbourg with the French 2nd Armored Division. After regrouping, the 44th Infantry Division returned to the attack, taking Ratzwiller and entering the Ensemble de Bitche along the Maginot Line.
When division commander Major General Robert L. Spragins was injured and relieved of command in December 1944, Dean was promoted to command the division. That month, the division was caught up in the German Army offensive in the Alsace, known as Operation Nordwind. Fort Simserhof was captured by the Germans on December 19 and the 44th Infantry Division was forced to retreat to defensive positions east of Sarreguemines. On December 21–23, the 44th threw back three attempts by the Germans to cross the Blies River. An aggressive defense of the Sarreguemines area was continued throughout February and most of March 1945.
The division moved across the Rhine River at Worms, Germany on March 26, in the wake of the 3rd Infantry Division. The 44th relieved the 3rd on March 26–27 and crossed the Neckar River to attack and capture Mannheim, Germany on March 28–29. Shifting to the west bank of the Main River, the division crossed that river at Grosse Auheim in early April, and engaged in a three-week period of training. Returning to the lines, the division resumed its attack on April 18 in conjunction with the US 10th Armored Division, the 44th took Ehingen on April 23, crossed the Danube River. It then attacked southeast into Austria, taking Füssen, Berg, and Wertach as part of a drive to Imst. Pursuing the disintegrating German forces through Fern Pass and into Inn Valley, the 44th was in Imst by May 4. The city of Landeck surrendered on May 5. The 19th German Army had surrendered at Innsbruck the same day, and the division was involved in processing German prisoners until V-E Day on May 8. Dean’s troops took 30,000 prisoners of war in the surrender of the German army. Dean was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Legion of Merit, and the Army Distinguished Service Medal for his leadership of the division during the war.
At the outbreak of the Korean War on June 25, 1950, Dean’s division was the closest US ground unit to the Korean Peninsula. On July 12, Dean ordered the division’s three regiments—the US 19th, 21st and 34th Infantry Regiments—to cross the Kum River, destroying all bridges behind them, and to establish defensive positions around Taejon. Dean formed a line with the 34th Infantry and 19th Infantry facing east, and held the heavily battered 21st Infantry in reserve to the southeast. Taejon stood as a major transportation hub between Seoul and Taegu, giving it great strategic value for both sides. The division was attempting to make a stand at Taejon, the last place it could conduct a delaying action before the North Korean forces could converge on the unfinished Pusan Perimeter.
The 24th Infantry Division’s three infantry regiments, which had a wartime strength of 3,000 each, were already below strength on their deployment, and heavy losses in the preceding two weeks had reduced their numbers further. The 21st Infantry had 1,100 men left, having suffered 1,433 casualties. The 34th Infantry had only 2,020 and the 19th had 2,276 men. There were another 2,007 men in the 24th Infantry Division artillery formations. Thus the division’s total strength was 11,400. This was severely reduced from the 15,965 men and 4,773 vehicles that had arrived in Korea at the beginning of the month.
While he was going after water for a wounded man, Dean fell down a steep slope and was knocked unconscious. When he regained consciousness he found he had a gashed head, a broken shoulder, and many bruises. For 36 days, Dean wandered alone in the mountains trying to reach safety, going without food and medical treatment. The 6 feet (1.8 m) tall Dean who had weighed 210 pounds (95 kg) before the war was reduced to 130 pounds (59 kg) as he wandered for the next month. On August 25, two South Koreans who pretended to be guiding him toward safety led him into a prearranged ambush of North Korean soldiers at Chinan, 35 miles (56 km) south of Taejon and 65 miles (105 km) west of Taegu. Dean attempted to fight the North Koreans with his sidearm to make them kill him, but they easily took the weakened Dean prisoner.
By July 22, with Dean still missing, Eighth Army appointed Church commander of the 24th Infantry Division and promoted him to major general. Dean was widely believed to have been killed until October 1950, when US forces captured a North Korean soldier named Lee Kyu Hyun near P’yongyang. Lee had been assigned to live with Dean for a month as an interpreter. Lee was interviewed throughout late 1950 but US military leaders still generally thought Dean was dead. On 9 January 1951, his Medal of Honor was presented to his wife (who believed she was a widow) by President Harry S Truman at The White House.
Dean had no contact with the outside world until he was interviewed on December 18, 1951, by an Australian journalist, Wilfred Burchett, who was a correspondent for Le Soir, a Belgian newspaper. Burchett’s interview was the first time Dean was definitively confirmed alive and as a prisoner to the rest of the world. Dean recounted the incident in his autobiography with the title, “My friend Wilfred Burchett.” From Burchett’s visit to the end of the war, Dean claimed in his autobiography he was visited by numerous news correspondents. He claimed to have lived the remainder of his time as a prisoner in relative comfort. After the July 27, 1953 Armistice Agreement, Dean remained in North Korea as a prisoner of war for several more weeks while the armistice was worked out. He was returned to the UN forces at Panmunjom during Operation Big Switch on September 4, 1953.
When Dean returned to the United States, he received a hero’s welcome and was presented with a number of decorations, including the Medal of Honor, which he was unaware he had been awarded. Dean maintained he did not think his own experience was particularly heroic and asserted he did not feel he deserved an award for his actions in Korea. He was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City on his return to the US on October 26, 1953, and he was made the Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1, 1954.
Three months after his return from Korea, Dean was assigned as the Deputy Commanding General of the Sixth United States Army at the Presidio of San Francisco in California. Dean held this post for two years until he retired from active duty on the 31st of October in 1955. Upon retirement Dean was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge for his front line service in World War II and Korea; general officers are not usually eligible, since they are not usually participants in front line combat, and Dean was only the second general to receive the award. Other generals who received the Combat Infantryman Badge were Douglas MacArthur, Omar Bradley and Joseph Stilwell. In his later life, Dean maintained a self-deprecating outlook on his actions in Korea and maintained he did not feel he deserved the Medal of Honor. Of his time in Korea, Dean later said, “I wouldn’t have awarded myself a wooden star for what I did as a commander.” In his autobiography, he opted instead to highlight the command decisions he regretted making and contend, “There were heroes in Korea, but I was not one of them.”
Dean lived a quiet life in San Francisco after retirement. He died on August 24, 1981, aged 82, and was buried in San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio of San Francisco and next to his wife.
Maj. Gen. Dean distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the repeated risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. In command of a unit suddenly relieved from occupation duties in Japan and as yet untried in combat, faced with a ruthless and determined enemy, highly trained and overwhelmingly superior in numbers, he felt it his duty to take action which to a man of his military experience and knowledge was clearly apt to result in his death. He personally and alone attacked an enemy tank while armed only with a hand grenade. He also directed the fire of his tanks from an exposed position with neither cover nor concealment while under observed artillery and small-arms fire. When the town of Taejon was finally overrun he refused to insure his own safety by leaving with the leading elements but remained behind organizing his retreating forces, directing stragglers, and was last seen assisting the wounded to a place of safety. These actions indicate that Maj. Gen. Dean felt it necessary to sustain the courage and resolution of his troops by examples of excessive gallantry committed always at the threatened portions of his frontlines. The magnificent response of his unit to this willing and cheerful sacrifice, made with full knowledge of its certain cost, is history. The success of this phase of the campaign is in large measure due to Maj. Gen. Dean’s heroic leadership, courageous and loyal devotion to his men, and his complete disregard for personal safety.
BURIAL LOCATION: SAN FRANCISCO NATIONAL CEMETERY, SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA.