Meet the namesake of the Navy’s newest ship, the USS Robert E. Simanek

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A new expeditionary sea base officially joined the ranks of Military Sealift Command on May 4, when the USS Robert E. Simanek was christened in San Diego, California.

The vessel bears the name of a U.S. Marine, who, during the Korean War, threw himself onto a grenade to save his entrenched comrades. Simanek absorbed the full blast — yet miraculously survived.

Robert Ernest Simanek was born in Detroit, Michigan, on April 26, 1930. After stints working for the Ford Motor Company and General Motors, Simanek enlisted in the Marine Corps on Aug. 13, 1951.

He shipped out to Korea with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, arriving at an embattled strip of contested territory north of Seoul that the Marines called Bunker Hill.

On Aug. 9, 1952, elements of the 63rd and 65th armies of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army launched the first of numerous attempts to seize Bunker Hill, outpost by outpost.

Chinese forces had already taken outposts Elmer, Hilda and Irene, when, on August 17, Pfc. Simanek was among the Marines tasked to reclaim Outpost Irene.

Simanek had been assigned a Browning automatic rifle he considered “too heavy to wield around in night fighting.” His complaints resulted in his getting a radio and a .45-caliber pistol, “which was heavier,” Simanek told the Veterans History Project.

Despite being on patrol the night before and running on zero sleep, Simanek had few concerns when the order to came to patrol around Outpost Irene.

“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. “So, I took an old Readers’ 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.”

While trudging uphill towards the outpost, mortar rounds and gunfire erupted around the Marines who were walking single file along the path. The machine gunner directly behind Simanek was immediately shot and killed, causing the Marine and five others to retreat back to the base of the hill for cover, according to a Department of Defense release. Another Marine was shot through the chest yet remained alive.

A Chinese patrol in the area had set up an ambush, but when Simanek and his squad made first contact he noted that “we almost walked in behind them.”

The surprise, then, was mutual. Soon both sides were trading shots and taking casualties. During the firefight Simanek came upon Chinese combatants and shot both. He continued maneuvering, using any cover he could find while “hoping my .45 could outgun a burp gun or two.”

The diversion worked briefly before two grenades found their mark.

“They threw in two at the same time. I kicked one away, but I didn’t think I had time to get rid of the other one,” Simanek recalled in a DOD interview.

Instead, he smothered it with his body.

“It was training, it wasn’t any mental decision on my part at all. It was an automatic thing pushed by somebody,” he added.

What followed was described in his citation:

“Determined to save his comrades, when a hostile grenade was thrown in their midst, he unhesitatingly threw himself on the deadly missile absorbing the shattering violence of the exploding charge and shielding his fellow Marines from serious injury or death.”

Fortunately for Simanek, Chinese grenades were of notoriously inconsistent manufacture. The one he encountered failed to kill him — though it did pack enough punch to inflict serious wounds to both legs.

“Somehow I managed to use the right part of my body that didn’t hurt me that much,” he later recalled of the wounds he sustained to his right hip and lower leg.

Despite his injuries, Simanek continued to fight — radioing in for a nearby tank to take out a bunker of Chinese soldiers slightly below who were pinning down the Marines with lethal fire.

As the Marines were driven back, two tried to evacuate Simanek, but were themselves so badly wounded that he told them to leave him. As Chinese fighters approached, a passing American tank fired in their direction, killing or wounding all — but also wounding Simanek in the right eye and shoulder.

Crawling along on hands and knees, Simanek got clear of the battle zone and was put aboard a helicopter. From there he was evacuated to the hospital ship Haven, then to Japan and on to Mare Island, California, before eventually arriving at Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois, in September.

While undergoing this painful odyssey the struggle for Bunker Hill continued until September 30, when both sides, exhausted as much by rain and mud as by mutual combat attrition, stood down.

By then the Marines had retaken Outpost Irene and Bunker Hill itself, at a total cost of 96 dead. United Nations forces estimated PVA losses at about 400 killed and 3,900 wounded.

On Oct. 27, 1953, Pfc. Simanek joined six other Korea veterans in receiving the Medal of Honor from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was one of numerous personnel honored for sacrificing life or limb to protect his comrades from enemy grenades. Simanek, however, was among the few to jump on a grenade who did not earn his medal posthumously.

For Simanek, like many others, the war never truly left him.

“One of the hardest things about the medal is that you’re really not allowed to forget about it,” he said. “People will, in a good meaningful way of trying to compliment you, bring about some memories that maybe you’d like to get rid of.”

After his discharge, the Detroit native earned a degree in business management at Wayne State University. In 1956 he married Nancy Middleton, with whom he had a daughter. Simanek would go on to work in positions in the automobile industry and in the Small Business Administration before retiring in 1992.

Robert Simanek died in Novi, Michigan, on Aug. 1, 2022 at the age of 92, and is buried at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly, Michigan.

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