Robert E. Simanek, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for saving his fellow Marines from grievous injuries or death by falling on a live grenade hurled by Chinese Communist troops during a battle in the Korean War, died Monday in West Bloomfield, Michigan. He was 92 and had been among the last three Korean War veterans still alive to have received the medal, the military’s highest award for valor.
His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his daughter, Ann Simanek Clark.
Simanek, a private, was patrolling with his company in August 1952 in an area called Outpost Irene, just north of Seoul, when it was ambushed by enemy soldiers unleashing mortar and small-arms fire. His unit incurred heavy casualties. And then a pair of grenades landed in a trench where he had taken cover.
He kicked one of the grenades away but didn’t have time to hurl the second one. So he fell on it. The grenade’s blast penetrated his right hip and lower leg, but the other Marines in the trench were unscathed.
“I had been to the outpost before and thought of it as a somewhat vacation because no action had ever been there all the time I’d been on that particular part of the line,” Simanek recalled in an interview with the government website Department of Defense News in 2020. “So I took an old Reader’s Digest and a can of precious beer in my big back pocket and thought I was really going to have a relaxing situation. It didn’t turn out that way.”
As the Marines headed up a hill, they ran into a trap.
Simanek and the other Marines were pinned down. Trained as a radio operator as well as a rifleman, he radioed a nearby tank and directed its fire toward the enemy bunker, which was partly hidden by the terrain. After the grenade blasted him, he managed to crawl away from the trench on his hands and knees until a rescue squad found him and evacuated him aboard a helicopter.
Simanek, who was serving in the First Marine Division, was taken to a hospital ship and treated in Japan for severe nerve damage to his leg, then returned to the United States for care. After many months in military hospitals, he received a medical discharge.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented him with the Medal of Honor in October 1953. Simanek was cited for “his daring initiative and great personal valor in the face of almost certain death.”
The last two surviving Korean War veterans who received the medal are Hiroshi Miyamura, 96, an Army corporal who killed at least 50 Chinese troops in a firefight near Seoul before he was taken prisoner, and Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., 95, who saved his vastly outnumbered Army Rangers from annihilation in a battle with Chinese troops despite being grievously wounded.
There are 65 Medal of Honor recipients still alive, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
Robert Ernest Simanek was born in Detroit on April 26, 1930, the third son in a family of four brothers. His father, Edmund, worked for the city of Detroit. His mother, Florence (Hanson) Simanek, was a homemaker.
Robert graduated from high school in 1948 and worked for the Ford Motor Co. and General Motors before he was inducted into the Marine Corps in August 1951.
After his discharge, he attended Michigan State University for three years, then transferred to the Wayne State University School of Business Administration, where he received his bachelor’s degree. He later worked for an auto parts company and for the Small Business Administration.
In addition to his daughter, Simanek, who had lived in Farmington Hills, Michigan, for many years, is survived by his brother, David. His wife, Nancy (Middleton) Simanek, died in 2020.
In January 2021, the Navy announced that Expeditionary Sea Base 7, a ship that can be used to support a broad range of military operations, would be christened the USS Robert E. Simanek upon its launch, expected in 2024.
Shrapnel from the exploding grenade that Simanek smothered remained in his leg for the rest of his life. Over the years he was called upon many times to recount his exploits in Korea, but he disdained bravado. His daughter said he “didn’t like public speaking” and “felt he acted instinctively from his training.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.