Wesley Phelps was born in Neafus, Kentucky, on 12 June 1923. He was educated in the Ohio County, Kentucky, elementary schools and graduated from Horse Branch High School in 1942. Radio was his hobby and he had built some one-tube sets. Deciding to turn his hobby into an occupation, he went to school in Owensboro, Kentucky, for four months where he studied basic electricity, then took a three-month course in radio repair work at the Lafayette Trade School at Lexington, Kentucky. He followed that with studies in field radio repair work, and radio repair work on aircraft receivers at the Johnson Pre-Frequency Modulation School.
Although he was the sole support of his aged parents who owned and operated a 70-acre farm with his help, he was called up by the draft and was inducted into the Marine Corps on 9 April 1943 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
After boot camp at San Diego, Pvt Phelps was assigned to the Signal Battalion at the Marine Base at San Diego for one month and then was transferred to the Infantry Training Battalion at Camp Elliot, California. He successfully completed an eight-week course on the Browning Heavy Machine Gun, 30 caliber, and was classified as a heavy machine gunner. Pvt Phelps joined the 27th Replacement Battalion in September and left the United States on 23 October 1943, joining Company M, 3d Battalion, 7th Marines of the 1st Marine Division in December, just a few days before the unit left for the combat landing on Cape Gloucester, New Britain. After the Cape Gloucester campaign, all machine gun companies in the division, of which Company M was one, were broken up and their personnel were assigned to rifle companies. In this shuffle, Pvt Phelps became a crewman on a light machine gun in Company K of the same battalion. He was promoted to private first class in April 1944.
After a so-called "rest" at Pavuvu Island in the Russell Islands, the 1st Division left for the little-publicized Peleliu Island operation. After nineteen days of bitter and costly fighting, the night of 4 October 1944 found Company K strung out along the military crest of one of the coral mountains for which Peleliu is noted. With the Marines on one slope of the hill and the Japanese on the opposite slope, rifles became useless and a series of hand grenade battles took place over a period of several days.
During the night of the fourth the enemy launched a particularly vicious counterattack. PFC Phelps and a fellow Marine were in a foxhole when a Japanese grenade landed with a thud between them.
Private First Class Phelps shouted, "Look out, Shipley!" then unhesitatingly rolled over on the grenade, taking the full force of the explosion with his own body. PFC Phelps was killed while PFC Richard Shipley received only a small scratch. The Kentucky farm boy had sacrificed his own life to save that of his buddy.
Private First Class Phelps was initially buried in the United States Armed Forces Cemetery on Peleliu, but was later reinterred in Rosine Cemetery, Rosine, Kentucky.
The Medal of Honor was presented to the hero's mother in Rosine, Kentucky, on 26 April 1946 by the Commanding Officer of the Naval Ordnance Plant at Louisville, Kentucky.
World War II Medal of Honor