On Saturday morning, a crowd gathered next to Fiddlers Coffee in Centralia for the unveiling of a sign dedicated to Medal of Honor recipient Dexter J. Kerstetter, a World War II veteran who is the only known native of Centralia to ever earn the honor.
The crowd included members of the Kerstetter family, veterans and Centralia residents excited to see a Centralian recognized for his heroism. The sign was a long time coming, with previous attempts to honor Kerstetter having failed.
“All I can say is this is something that should have happened a long time ago,” said Al Gray at the beginning of the ceremony.
Gray, a retired Centralia firefighter, was the person responsible for getting the sign erected.
“Why don’t they have something for him?” Gray said he asked himself after seeing signs dedicated to other individuals along roadways.
“I went up and spoke to Marlin, one of (Kerstetter’s) sons, and he was all for it,” Gray said.
But the path to erecting a sign for Kerstetter wouldn’t be an easy one. According to Gray, one of Kerstetter’s brothers tried to have something done to recognize him, but the efforts never went anywhere.
Gray said he reached out to the Centralia City Council where his idea received a warm reception, though his efforts stalled out once the COVID-19 pandemic began. But as the pandemic became less severe, Gray’s activism began to show results, though it was too late for one member of the Kerstetter family.
“The council took it up right away after the pandemic and I called up Marlin and learned he had died,” Gray said.
Beyond recognizing a local hero, Gray said there is another benefit to the sign.
“These signs go a long way in easing the pain of some of the political signs around town,” Gray said.
Kerstetter was awarded the Medal of Honor at the White House by President Harry Truman on Oct. 12, 1945.
“Kerstetter was born in Centralia on December 21, 1907. He joined the Army in March of 1942. By April of 1945 he was serving as a Private First Class in Company C, 130th Infantry Regiment, 33rd Infantry Division. During a fight to take a ridge near Galiano, Luzon, Philippines, he advanced alone ahead of his squad and engaged the Japanese soldiers until he ran out of ammunition. For these actions he was awarded the Medal of Honor,” according to a statement from the city.
In total, Kerstetter killed 16 Japanese soldiers that day as he fired his rifle and threw grenades at the scattering opposition, according to the Medal of Honor Society.
Kerstetter left the Army on Nov. 1, 1945, and returned to Washington state. He began working at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in 1954. He drowned on July 9, 1972. His body was never recovered. A memorial gravesite was dedicated in his honor at Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent.
Kerstetter’s daughter, Sandy Jones, addressed the crowd Saturday.
“It’ll be 50 years since he drowned on July 9,” Jones said. “He was doing something he loved, he was fishing.”
“I danced on his shoes, my sister and I. He treated us like princesses. We just wanted to say thank you to the City of Centralia because it’s his hometown and he was from here,” Jones said before letting her cousin, Carolyn Kerstetter, speak.
“Uncle Dex was very proud, but he wasn’t one to talk about what he did during the war,” Carolyn Kerstetter said.
According to Carolyn Kerstetter, her family has deep roots in the area, having come to Washington before it was a state.
“He saved three people’s lives in the Columbia River, they would have drowned,” Carolyn Kerstetter added, providing another example of her uncle’s heroism.
After members of the family had finished speaking, the crowd moved in front of Fiddlers Coffee on Mellen Street to watch the unveiling of the sign. As Jones stood below her father’s sign, the crowd watched as the wrapping was removed. After the crowd cheered, the rest of Kerstetter’s family joined Jones under the sign for photographs.
After the sign unveiling, Jones spoke to The Chronicle about her father.
“You know, honestly, he was so humble. He would be so proud. He joined the Army when he was 37 years old and they called him ‘pops,’” Jones said. “He was a cook but thought that was boring so he volunteered to be a scout.”
“He got shot in the bottom, his hands were severely burned, but he just kept going,” Jones said regarding her father’s actions that earned him the Medal of Honor.
Jones said after returning to Washington state, her father moved to Bremerton, where Jones still lives, to work at the Naval Shipyard. While working at the shipyards, Jones said her father was granted leave to attend the inaugurations of presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon all of which he was invited to due to his status as a Medal of Honor recipient.
Another one of Kerstetter’s nieces, Becky Core, also spoke to The Chronicle about the event.
“I thought it went very smoothly, I wish they would do more to recognize important people (like Kerstetter),” Core said.
“He would have been so proud,” Core added. “He was really quiet and he never bragged, that's the kind of person he was.”
According to the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor Society, the accolade is the “United States’ highest award for military valor in action” for any U.S. service member who “distinguishes himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty; (or) while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States; (or) while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.”
The award had been given to only 3,527 service members in its 160 years of existence as of last year. Following a rigorous application and verification process, the Medal of Honor is often awarded to the soldier by the president at a public ceremony.