By John Rutherford, Producer, NBC News, Washington
Army Sgt. Cornelius Charlton, one of the last of the all-black Buffalo Soldiers and a recipient of the Medal of Honor for his heroics during the Korean War, has finally been laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
"I wish we didn't have to wait so long for this to happen, but he is now in his rightful resting place," said his niece, Zenobia Penn, of New London, Conn.
"Connie" Charlton served with the 24th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the Buffalo Soldiers by American Indians after its creation by Congress in 1866. The regiment, the last of the all-black Army units, was disbanded in 1951, shortly after Charlton was fatally wounded leading an assault on Communist forces northeast of Seoul, South Korea.
"The wounds received during his daring exploits resulted in his death, but his indomitable courage, superb leadership and gallant self-sacrifice reflect the highest credit upon himself, the infantry and the military service," his Medal of Honor citation reads.
His late brother Arthur said Charlton was initially denied burial at Arlington National Cemetery because he was black. The cemetery insisted that was not true.
"We have never denied burial to an eligible service member or veteran based on race or color," Arlington's superintendent, John Metzler, said.
Whoever's right, Charlton's mother had him buried in a family plot in Pocahontas, Va. When the cemetery fell into disrepair, his body was disinterred and reburied in 1990 in the American Legion Cemetery in Beckley, W.Va.
There it remained until his niece decided she wanted Charlton buried instead at Arlington National Cemetery.
"I became quite diligent in my efforts to find something that would acknowledge my Uncle Connie even more so as a hero," said Zenobia, who was born one month after her uncle died.
She sent in documentation of his Medal of Honor, and his burial at Arlington was quickly approved.
"Yeah, boy, it did move pretty quickly," she said. "I just got moving on it, and the rest all fell into place."
Zenobia was one of about 150 friends and family members who gathered on a chill November morning at Arlington National Cemetery for last week's re-interment ceremonies. Tears flowed freely during the brief graveside service.
"He was a good guy, according to everybody," Zenobia said.
Charlton was born 79 years ago, in 1929, in the coal-mining town of Eastgulf, W.Va. He was one of 17 children of Clara and Van Charlton.
The family moved to New York City in 1944, and he enlisted in the Army after attending James Monroe High School in the Bronx. He was shipped to Korea in 1950 and volunteered for combat.
"At last I am getting what I have been waiting for," he wrote home to one of his sisters.
His commanding officer didn't share his enthusiasm.
"Why'd they send him here?" the commander said, according to one account. "Is he a troublemaker?"
On June 2, 1951, Charlton assumed command of his platoon during an attack on Hill 543 near Chipo-Ri, South Korea. His Medal of Honor citation explains what happened next.
"... Personally eliminating two hostile positions and killing six of the enemy with his rifle fire and grenades, he continued up the slope until the unit suffered heavy casualties and became pinned down. Regrouping the men, he led them forward only to be again hurled back by a shower of grenades.
"Despite a severe chest wound, Sergeant Charlton refused medical attention and led a third daring charge which carried to the crest of the ridge. Observing that the remaining emplacement which had retarded the advance was situated on the reverse slope, he charged it alone, was again hit by a grenade, but raked the position with a devastating fire which eliminated it and routed the defenders ..."
Charlton died of his wounds at the age of 21. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously on March 19, 1952.
"We gave him the Medal of Honor," the Saturday Evening Post wrote in 1953. "He gave us his life."
Army photo of Sgt. Cornelius Charlton and AP photos of his burial ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery and of Zenobia Penn wiping tears from her eyes at the ceremony.
Click here to view tributes to the 449 service members killed this year in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the following nine casualties from last week:
1. Army Spc. William McClellan, 22, of Indianapolis, Ind.
2. Army Sgt. Jose Regalado, 23, of Los Angeles, Calif.
3. Army Spc. Corey Shea, 21, of Mansfield, Mass.
4. Army Spc. Armando De La Paz, 21, of Riverside, Calif.
5. Army Spc. James Clay, 25, of Mountain Home, Ark.
6. Army Spc. Jonnie Stiles, 38, of Highland Ranch, Colo.
7. Marine Cpl. Aaron Allen, 24, of Buellton, Calif.
8. Army Chief Warrant Officer Donald Clark, 37, of Memphis, Tenn.
9. Army Chief Warrant Officer Christian Humphreys, 28, of Fallon, Nev.
Washington Producer John Rutherford is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He also posts stories on the military at www.fieldnotes.msnbc.com (click on "John Rutherford" under "categories") and at http://john-rutherford.newsvine.com. The first tribute gallery can be found at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22802019/ and the second at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27336564.