Always drawn to the U.S. Army, he enlisted immediately after his high school graduation, in 1946. He was 17 (his parents had given permission).
Initially assigned to Allied-occupied Germany, then the Aberdeen Proving ground, then Okinawa, Japan. Wanting to enter combat, he requested a transfer in 1950 and was assigned to the 24th Infantry Regiment and deployed to Korea.
During Operation Piledriver, on June 2, 1951, Sergeant Cornelius Charlton earned a Congressional Medal of Honor while capturing Hill 543. After overcoming enemy fire, he spotted and attacked an enemy bunker, destroying it, while suffering from grenade shrapnel wounds that would prove fatal.
Sadly, he was interred three times. The first, in the segregated Bryant Memorial Cemetery, then, the American Legion stepped in and reinterred him at their cemetery in Beckley, Virginia. Finally, after quite a mess of bureaucracy, he was put to rest, with full military honors, in Arlington Cemetery.