Charles Leon Gilliland (1933–1951)

Charles Leon Gilliland of Yellville (Marion County) died in combat at the age of seventeen and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in battle in the Korean War.

Charles Gilliland was born on May 24, 1933, in the Colfax (Baxter County) to Leon Carl Gilliland, a farmer and construction worker, and Evangeline Margarite Martin Gilliland, a nurse’s aide. Gilliland was the second of nine children and the oldest son. The family moved to neighboring Marion County when Gilliland was a teenager.

A country boy who loved to hunt and fish, Gilliland was fascinated by the military and police work. He collected military-related photographs and articles from newspapers and magazines and wore surplus military fatigues and a helmet. Boyhood friend Harold C. Mears of Yellville wrote, “[Charles] was really engrossed in the military. It makes me think that he was destined to do what he did in Korea.”

Gilliland enjoyed bodybuilding but could not afford to buy a set of weights. Instead, he lifted rocks and an anvil to build the muscles on his six-foot frame. He even carried his younger siblings on his shoulders to develop his strength and endurance. When Gilliland turned sixteen, he began pressing his parents for permission to enlist in the military. They finally gave their consent, and Gilliland enlisted in the U.S. Army on May 24, 1950, his seventeenth birthday. The Korean War began two months later.

Gilliland underwent basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas. He came home on leave before his unit was shipped overseas in October. Months later, Gilliland wrote a letter to his parents in which he mentioned that he had carried a fellow soldier who had lost both legs in combat.

A member of Company I, Seventh Infantry Regiment, Third Infantry Division, Gilliland was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions in battle on April 25, 1951, near Tongmang-ni, Korea. According to the medal citation, Gilliland displayed “conspicuous gallantry and outstanding courage above and beyond the call of duty” during an enemy assault against Gilliland’s company. “A numerically superior hostile force launched a coordinated assault against his company perimeter, the brunt of which was directed up a defile covered by his automatic rifle,” the citation reads. “His assistant was killed by enemy fire but Corporal Gilliland, facing the full force of the assault, poured a steady fire into the foe which stemmed the onslaught.” When two enemy soldiers infiltrated his sector, Gilliland jumped from his foxhole and killed both soldiers with his pistol. He received a serious head wound but refused medical treatment and returned to his position.

Despite his injury, Gilliland volunteered to stay behind and cover his unit’s withdrawal. “His heroic actions and indomitable devotion to duty prevented the enemy from completely overrunning his company positions. Corporal Gilliland’s incredible valor and supreme sacrifice reflect lasting glory upon himself and are in keeping with the honored traditions of the military service,” the citation reads.

Gilliland’s body was never recovered, and he was declared dead in 1954. The Medal of Honor was presented to his family during a ceremony at the Pentagon. His other service decorations include the Good Conduct Medal, Purple Heart, Army of Occupation Medal, Korean Service Medal with three Campaign Stars, Presidential Unit Citation, Combat Infantry Badge, and United Nations Service Medal.

On May 24, 1997, which would have been Gilliland’s sixty-fourth birthday, the U.S. Navy christened a converted strategic sealift ship—now a large, medium speed, roll-on/roll off ship (LMSR)—as the USNS Gilliland (T-AKR 298) in ceremonies at Newport News, Virginia.

For additional information:
Congressional Medal of Honor Society. (accessed July 6, 2023).

Stewart, Julie. “Ship to Carry Name of Heroic Arkansan.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. May 24, 1997, p. 1A.

Williams, Nancy A., ed. Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives. Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

Wolfe, Ron. “Arkansans Honored for Bravery in Korea.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. July 27, 2003, p. 1A.

Julie Stewart
Mountain Home, Arkansas

This entry, originally published in Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives, appears in the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas in an altered form. Arkansas Biography is available from the University of Arkansas Press.


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