Walter Norton Higgins
3rd Infantry Division, 65th Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion, Company B
Before the War
Walter Norton Higgins was born in Galveston, Texas, on August 24, 1927, the second of three sons of John Waite Higgins and Esther Norton Higgins. Higgins’ father was a World War I veteran who worked as an electrician and lineman. His mother worked as a public school teacher. Although the couple had three healthy boys in the span of five years, they divorced suddenly before their youngest child was born in 1930. John W. Higgins remarried that same year and moved to Austin, Texas, abandoning his family at the outset of the Great Depression.
Esther and her three sons, John Jr., Walter, and Vernon moved in with her mother, Bettie E. Norton in Galveston. Higgins lived with his mother, grandmother, uncle, and brothers, and the family worked together to survive the Great Depression. During World War II, he attended Ball High School in Galveston, excelled on the football field and met his future wife, Billie. After graduating high school in 1944, Higgins received a scholarship to play football at Texas A&M University.
Texas A&M influenced the rest of Higgins’s life. In addition to his role as a member of the football team, he also served in the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets. He flourished at Texas A&M and developed leadership skills and values that shaped the rest of his life.
By his junior year, Higgins earned the distinction of commanding the E Infantry Corps as a cadet captain. He was well-liked and respected by his classmates, who nicknamed him “Country.” On April 3, 1947, Higgins married his high school sweetheart, Billie Jeanna Wimberly, at Galveston’s Sacred Heart Church. He graduated in 1948 with a bachelor of science in agricultural engineering, and was one of only four Texas A&M graduates to be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
Fort Benning, Georgia
At Fort Benning, Georgia, Higgins participated in both basic and advanced infantry officers courses to prepare him for his role as an infantry officer. He received training in amphibious, airborne, and arctic operations with tactical studies of jungle, mountain, and desert warfare.
While in Georgia, Higgins and his wife Billie welcomed their daughter, Zenda Lee Higgins, on May 8, 1949. After nearly a year of training, Higgins was assigned to the 65th Infantry Division in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico
In July 1949, he moved his young family to Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico. Higgins participated in several large scale, joint Army-Navy exercises with the 1st Battalion and was promoted to first lieutenant by the new regimental commander, Colonel William W. Harris.
Throughout 1949 and early 1950, the 65th Infantry Regiment continued to train and prepare for any potential conflict. When North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, the United States became involved in the Korean War. By August 1950, Colonel Harris received formal notice from Puerto Rico’s governor that the 65th Infantry Regiment should prepare to join the war in Asia.
Higgins and the 65th Infantry Regiment boarded the USS Marine Lynx to cross the Pacific Ocean. On the ship, the men of the 65th Infantry Regiment selected their unit nickname, the “Borinqueneers” in honor of one of Puerto Rico’s indigenous tribes. Spirits were high when the soldiers learned that General Douglas MacArthur’s Marines successfully landed on Inchon in mid-September 1950. One week later, on September 23, 1950, Higgins and the 65th Infantry Regiment landed in Pusan, South Korea, after more than three weeks at sea. It was the largest infantry regiment in the war at that point, with more than 3,900 men.
The 65th Infantry Regiment’s soldiers proved their mettle in their first month of battle. They served as an important unit in the combined United Nations force. The fighting borinqueneers lived up to their name as they pushed the North Korean army from the Pusan Perimeter to the edge of the Chinese border. In their first month of action, they wounded or killed over 600 North Korean soldiers and took an additional 921 prisoners of war, suffering only 38 battle casualties. General MacArthur applauded the 65th Infantry Regiment as a credit to Puerto Rico.
In the dynamic early stages of the war, Higgins and the men of the 65th Infantry Regiment shined; however, the situation turned much bleaker as winter approached. On October 31, 1950, the 65th Infantry Regiment was attached to the X Corps and shipped from Pusan, South Korea to Wonsan, North Korea. Higgins and his men of B Company were tasked with patrolling a large area of land southwest of Kwang-chon, North Korea. Snow began to fall as early as November 10, and Higgins and his company saw their first intense action several days later.
On November 13, 1950, a motorized patrol led by Higgins encountered a group of twenty North Korean soldiers entrenched on a ridge overlooking the village of Hadongson-ni. Both sides opened fire nearly simultaneously. According to the 3rd Infantry Division’s monthly command report, “Lieutenant Higgins grabbed up a light machine gun and ran down the road and up the slope to a point from which he delivered sweeping fire at the enemy flank, killing two enemy soldiers, and wounding several others and causing the remainder to flee.” For his gallantry and disregard for his own safety, First Lieutenant Walter Norton Higgins was awarded a Silver Star.
After the 1st Marine Division and X Corps were nearly entrapped by the People’s Volunteer Army during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, the 65th Infantry Regiment provided essential defensive cover for the retreat of the Marines. They helped accomplish the largest beachhead evacuation in U.S. military history when they protected the escape route for 105,000 troops and 100,000 refugees from Hungnam Harbor. Higgins and his company were among the last soldiers to board the ship back to Pusan on December 24, 1950.
Following their narrow escape from North Korea, Higgins and the 65th Infantry Regiment began preparations for the UN forces’ upcoming Operation Thunderbolt to retake Seoul. On January 21, 1951, during a grenade training exercise with South Korean soldiers, a soldier accidentally dropped a live grenade among the trainees. In an act of selfless service, Higgins grabbed the grenade in an attempt to throw it away from the Korean trainees, only to have it explode prematurely. Higgins received mortal wounds to the left side of his body. His left hand was never recovered. He died instantly in what the army deemed a non-combat accident.
Higgins’s widow and mother were notified of his death by telegram in late January 1951. In a February 5, 1951 letter from Major General Edward F. Witsell to Billie J. Higgins, he confirmed that her husband died as a result of a premature grenade explosion during training. He wrote, “I sincerely regret that this message must carry so much sorrow into your home and I hope that in time you may find sustaining comfort knowing that he served his country honorably.”
Billie wrote the Office of Quartermaster General to express her strong desire that her husband’s remains be left in the United Nations Military Cemetery near Pusan, South Korea. Because the UN cemetery in Korea was temporary, she requested that he be interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.
First Lieutenant Walter Norton Higgins is commemorated at his alma mater, Texas A&M University, in the Memorial Student Center. On Veterans Day 1986, he was honored with a granite plaque in his hometown of Santa Fe in Galveston County, Texas. The plaque read, “We honor our sons who defended our community and nation in the time of war, and gave their lives to preserve our way of life.”
“1Lt Walter Norton Higgins.” Find A Grave. Last Modified August 24, 2017. Accessed July 10, 2018. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/3777817/walter-norton-higgins.
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Walter Norton Higgins in Aggie Corps. Photograph. 1947. Texas A&M Long Horn Yearbook. Texas A&M University Libraries. http://library.tamu.edu/yearbooks/.