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David Lee West

Courtesy West Family

West Virginia Veterans Memorial

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David Lee West
1929-1951

"In Korea we are not fighting for a few hills and valleys, but for an idea and an ideal."

Lt. Col. T. W. Woodard, Jr.

David Lee West was born in Cabin Creek, West Virginia, on November 21, 1929, to Howard S. and Cecile Sue Creasey West. Howard and Cecile had six children over a twenty-three year period—three boys and three girls—in order of birth: Patricia (“Pat”), Charles W. (“Charlie”), David Lee, Hannah, Jerry, and Barbara (“Cookie”). In his memoir West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011), Jerry says that the age differences caused the family to seem as if there were two separate households. Of his brother, Jerry says, “David was our glue.” David epitomized goodness, always looking out for the younger members of the family.

At East Bank High School, David was a star athlete and student leader. He liked both football and basketball, playing center on the 1946 football team that registered only one loss and captaining the basketball team. David’s sister, Hannah West Lilly Bowman, recalls that the boys who played these sports at East Bank had a difficult time getting home after practice; most of the time they “thumbed” a ride. Often the West home was host to those who could not get home.
David West

David West, captain of 1946 East Bank High School basketball team. Courtesy West family

As was the case with many teens of his era, school and church were at the center of David’s life. Hannah recalls her brother as a fine young man who was very religious. Citing the fact that she and her brother were very close when they were growing up, Hannah remembers that every Sunday they attended the young people’s meeting at their Methodist church.

David Lee West

David Lee West. Courtesy Hannah West Lilly Bowman, sister

As a young man, David worked at the Kroger store at Cabin Creek, always helping out the other members of his family. As Hannah states, “When he finished paying for his dental work, he started on mine.” David had plans for college when he finished his Army service; his sister believes he would eventually have become a missionary. Describing his feelings toward those he observed in Korea, she notes that he always had sympathy for those who had less than he. Hannah named her only son David, as she says, “hoping he would turn out to be the same fine young man.” Bearing the name of the uncle he never had a chance to know, David Lee Lilly resides in Kirkwood, Missouri.

David Lee West volunteered for the Army on January 4, 1949. A member of a heavy mortar company, he served in the 35th Infantry, 24th Division, in Korea. With two years’ service to his credit, by the summer of 1951 he was due for a rotation to the states, a visit much looked forward to by his family.
David West

Sgt. David Lee West, courtesy West family. Hannah Bowman thinks this picture shows what war does to a young man.

Sgt. West would continue the kind of leadership he demonstrated in high school during his military career, where ultimately he would receive the Bronze Star for meritorious service and the Purple Heart. Writing in the Charleston Daily Mail on December 24, 1950 (“Dave West Korean Hero: Former E.B. Star Saves Boy’s Life”), Jerry Gould reports:

From the friendliness of Cabin Creek to a cold, forbidding rice paddy in Korea. That’s the story of David West, son of Mr. and Mrs. Howard West of Cabin Creek.

They don’t refer to him as David now, it’s just plain Sgt. West as the Americans keep one step ahead of the Chinese Reds and the rigors of winter, both unrelenting enemies.

Dave, a former basketball star for Roy Williams at East Bank, has been in the army for two years now. He played a guard for the ’47 team that posted a 12-10 record and had such stars as Jim Burgraph, Jim Brown, Charley Curry, Roy Brown, Dennis Townsend, the Bowe boys—Chester and Wetzel—and Carl McLaughlin.

On Aug. 17, young West was fighting with the 25th Division in bleak Korea. A comrade, wounded in the leg, fell near him. He pulled the wounded soldier to safety, just as any other American would do for a buddy in distress.

Dave went on about his soldiering and undoubtedly has forgotten all about the incident. But a few days ago, Cpl. Don and Pfc. Charles Woody were home on a Christmas leave with their parents, Mr. and Mrs. L. E. Woody and younger brother and sister Harold and Juanita at Institute.

When the boys told of their experiences in Korea—Don was wounded in the leg and Charles lost a leg—Don mentioned a David West of East Bank who had pulled him from a rice paddy after he was hit.

This story appeared in Friday’s Daily Mail and on Saturday, Mr. West appeared [at the newspaper office] with a picture of Dave and said that he had heard from him recently and that he was alive and well.

The Woody youth, who credits West with saving his life, will have a chance to express his appreciation to the elder West. Dave’s father plans to visit Don, perhaps on Christmas day when most American [sic] will be thinking of “Peace on earth and good will toward all men.”

Hannah laughed as she remembered that article and her father’s reaction to it. She said he didn’t own a car, so he took a bus downtown to talk to the people at the newspaper.

David Lee West

Sgt. West, picture taken in Japan, before he was sent to Korea. Courtesy West family

In a letter to his mother dated February 10, 1950, David starts with the usual pleasantries about the weather, his getting little mail, and questions about his family’s health. At the time, he was in a hospital in Japan, where he was recovering from hepatitis; soon he would be sent back to Korea—too soon according to his family. After his initial greetings, he turns to the more serious subject of rearmament and the draft, indicating that the U.S. is fighting against great odds and he hopes that the situation will soon reverse. He adds, “Mom, the Korean people have suffered an awful lot, you know from Seoul…and on up. It is nothing but ruins and ashes. I hope they turn to God. He will lift them up, and they will someday forget their troubles.” Further on he says, “But I think we should never brag on what we have. But be thankful for what we have. Mom if the Koreans could see the West family, they would say we were millionares. I’m not kidding.” Much of the letter is devoted to his devout belief that Christianity will prevail because it emphasizes love, not force. Concluding that he never meant “to write a book on that,” he mentions that he will get another blood test the following Tuesday and hopes “everything will be okay.” Hannah notes that David’s friends in Korea affectionately called him “the deacon.”

On June 7, 1951, David wrote to his family that he was in the front line of combat, and, one day later, he would be killed in action. Sgt. Neville Bailey was a comrade in arms who was responsible for getting David to a medical area when he was hit in the leg. For some time, Sgt. Bailey carried on a correspondence with Mrs. West, attempting to answer her questions about David’s death and the care he received. On November 16, 1951, Bailey writes:

I would say that your son could have died from shock…. I had no way of telling just how serious his wound was, or what would take place later. I’m sure they gave him the very best of care possible. I gave David all the first-aid I could, and carried him back to the Medical Collecting Co. myself…. [Describing the seriousness of David’s wound and the fact that three young men were killed outright from the shelling, he (Bailey) received only two broken ribs.] He [David] then saw me, and prayed to God for him to help me to reach him and aid him.

Sgt. Bailey speaks of his own promotion and receipt of the Silver Star, which he wants Mrs. West to have. Referring to the war as “this madness,” he adds, “we hear the peace talks are going well here now, & all hope it will end very soon. I had hopes of getting home by Xmas. But now I don’t know if I will make it. They will have to hurry.” He ends his lengthy, chatty, informative letter by saying he hopes he will hear from Mrs. West again soon.

David West was the brother of West Virginia basketball great Jerry West, who was nearly ten years younger and looked up to his brother as a role model. In a February 18, 2011, interview with Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times, Jerry said of his brother, “He was religious, almost a perfect person…. I never heard one person say a bad word about him.” With David being the “glue” of the family, his death instantaneously changed the lives of his family members and indeed the character of the family itself. Both Hannah in interviews and Jerry in his book indicate that David provided a moral compass for the Wests. In West by West, Jerry West laments the fact his brother died with his whole life ahead of him; he was cut down at twenty-one. Of his mother’s reaction, Jerry says succinctly: “My mother was never the same after David’s death.”

The determination of the West family to preserve a memory of this “perfect person” means that David West has left a legacy. As did his sister, Jerry West named a son for his brother. At West Virginia University, Jerry gave his alma mater a David West Learning Center, a facility that houses a variety of electronic resources and is staffed with a complement of tutors. During the summer of 2010, on the sixtieth anniversary of the start of the Korean War, Jerry West was one of a group of dignitaries who toured South Korea and stopped at a memorial that lists the names of the U.S. forces killed in that conflict, one of whom was David West. Jerry writes that the trip provided a catharsis of sorts and he was able somewhat to come to terms with the emotional turmoil experienced throughout his life of losing David. With resignation he says, “Experiencing what I had in Korea made me feel that David’s death, in certain respects, had not been in vain…because the South Korean people sixty years later are still so grateful for our help during that conflict.”

The remains of David West were returned to the U.S., where he was buried in Montgomery Memorial Park in London, West Virginia, and in 1967 and 1991, respectively, his father and mother were laid to rest by his side.
grave marker

Marker for Sgt. David Lee West in Montgomery Memorial Park. Courtesy Nina McComas Thomas, Find A Grave

Family information and photos provided by David West’s sister Hannah West Lilly Bowman
Article prepared by Patricia Richards McClure
September 2016

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David Lee West

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