Two hundred forty-one men received the Medal of Honor for extraordinary valor during the Vietnam War. One of them received his award three decades late. On February 8, 2000, in a White House ceremony, President Bill Clinton belatedly draped the award around the neck of Alfred Rascon, a native of Chihuahua, Mexico. Rascon, who now serves as inspector general of the U.S. Selective Service, was badly wounded in the March 1966 action that earned him the award, but he saved two lives. Others in his unit — who bucked the Pentagon and Congress to insist that he be recognized — say his bravery under fire turned around a losing situation.
It was the second time Rascon had been wounded in Vietnam. The first was on September 20, 1965. But the action for which he received the medal occurred six months later, when he was serving as a medic with a reconnaissance platoon. He had joined the Army three years earlier at age 17, and by late 1963 had been assigned to the Medical Platoon, 1st Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate), based in Okinawa. In May 1965, the 173rd was the first Army combat unit committed to Vietnam.
Rascon saw fighting almost immediately and was wounded the following fall. He was back in action by the time the 1st Infantry Division mounted a major joint air and land offensive in March 1966 — dubbed Operation Silver City — in War Zone D, Long Khanh province. The offensive included units from the 173rd, elements of the 1st Infantry Division, the ARVN 10th Division and Civil Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) forces and supporting artillery and other units.
The area targeted, according to intelligence reports, contained a major enemy installation, the headquarters for the Viet Cong’s Military Region Seven (MR-7). With its affiliated civil organizations, MR-7 controlled VC activities in an area roughly corresponding to the Republic of Vietnam’s III Corps area, and included food and weapons depots, an important communications center and housing for military planning and political committees. U.S. reports also stated that three VC Main Force regiments — the 271st, 272nd and 273rd — had been spotted in the area in recent weeks.
Six task forces, including an element of an Australian regiment, and support units were brought together for the operation. One week into the offensive, the recon platoon was ambushed and pinned down on a narrow jungle trail as they moved to reinforce the 2nd Battalion (TF 2/503), which was encircled and under fire by an NVA regiment.
Rascon talked to former Vietnam Senior Editor Kathy Kadane about why he joined the Army at such a young age, the early phase of Operation Silver City and the firefight in which he saved two soldiers and was himself badly wounded. He also offered his thoughts on being the recipient of the nation’s highest citation for valor. ‘I’m not a hero,’ he said emphatically. ‘To me, the definition of a hero is someone who shows valor every day. The true heroes are those who were with me on the trail that day, as well as all those in Vietnam who every day faced down being in harm’s way.’
Vietnam: As the son of Mexican immigrants living in California, why did you decide to join the Army? And why so young?
Rascon: My family in Oxnard lived near three military bases, and as a child I watched troop convoys heading for embarkation points for Korea during the Korean War. From this, I became fascinated with the military life. I especially wanted to be a paratrooper. At age 7, I jumped off the roof of our house with a parachute that I had made, but the chute had what you might call a ‘total malfunction.’ I ended up with a broken wrist. Nevertheless, I continued to dream about being a paratrooper, and when I graduated from high school I persuaded my parents to sign a waiver permitting me to join even though I was not yet 18. In 1963, I completed basic and advanced individual training and airborne school. Toward the end, I was also given medical training, then I was sent to Okinawa to join the 173rd as an airborne medic.
VN: You were not yet a citizen, I understand.
Rascon: That’s right. I had the status of legal permanent resident. I became a citizen in 1967 upon my return to the States. But my status was never an issue — the men I served with did not even know that I was not a citizen, nor did they care. They just called me ‘Doc.’
VN: What were the specifics that led to your unit’s going to Vietnam in 1965, after the Johnson administration decided to commit ground troops?
Rascon: Very likely it was the fact that the 173rd was one of the best-trained units at that time to handle jungle warfare. The 173rd is a self-supported brigade, formed about 1963 out of the 2nd Airborne Battalion Group, which had been based in Okinawa, Thailand and the Philippines. The 173rd had had jungle training. I believe it was one of the very few units with this kind of experience — except for some Marine units. So on May 5, 1965, the 173rd was committed to Vietnam. The 503’s 1st Battalion (1/503) landed in Vung Tau but eventually joined the rest of the brigade at Bien Hoa Air Base.
VN: Within a few months, though, your battalion was included in one of the most ambitious assaults of that period of the war, Operation Silver City, directed by the 1st Infantry Division. The 173rd’s after-action report shows how big the effort really was. It says, for example, that the VC forces there included three main force regiments, two main force battalions, one local force battalion and smaller security forces. It also says that the area was a ‘long established and well defended base camp for numerous VC units.’ Did you know at the beginning what a big job this was going to be?
Rascon: I did not realize how big Operation Silver City was until later. I have a clear memory of traveling into the area, including a difficult crossing of the Song Be River on pontoons and rubber rafts. Others flew in by helicopter and established a landing zone from which the 173rd could operate. The mission was to insert us into War Zone D and to destroy MR-7 headquarters. This involved a thorough screening of the area.
VN: Tell us what happened in the first few days.
Rascon: We started out on March 9, searching the area. On March 14 and 15 we found large caches of weapons and rice. On the 15th, one bag that we found was booby-trapped, and two recon soldiers were wounded and extracted by helicopter. This was a scary event because when we found these materials, despite the fact that there could be other booby-traps, we were ordered to retrieve them and bring them back to the battalion area base. Then engineers would go back in and blow up everything we could not carry out.
VN: It appears that this was an important find, however. Records of the 173rd show they later verified that this was a weapons depot for MR-7. The mission was considered a second major success for the brigade. In January, the 173rd had uncovered weapons caches for the VC’s MR-4 — the Saigon – Cholon – Gia Dinh Special Sector headquarters. What happened then?
Rascon: That night, around 1 a.m., our encampment was shattered by the sound of mortars and artillery. We did not know if these were the ‘bad guys,’ or if we were the targets. By daybreak, we could hear the 2nd Battalion in a massive firefight. We later found out they were engaged with two reinforced battalions of the regular NVA. We learned that they were surrounded in an oval-shaped area about the size of a football field in the middle of dense jungle. They were being hit from all sides. But we were still sweeping the area. One company had found another large ammo cache, and it would have to be retrieved, so we did this. By midday, however, it was decided that B and C Companies would assist the 2nd Battalion. Later that afternoon, the recon patrol was told to take the lead, with A Company bringing up the rear.
VN: Apparently, this fight was the second most significant action since the 173rd had come to Vietnam. What did you have to do to get to them?
Rascon: The area was covered by dense jungle, so we had to work our way on narrow paths, which were enemy trails. We could hear the fighting from about 200 meters away when we came to a stretch where, to our left, was a burned-out, napalmed area; on the right, thick jungle; and ahead, a fork where two other trails met the trail we were on. At this location, we found piles of bandages and bodies of NVA soldiers that had been stacked up. We later learned that the 2/503 was putting it to the NVA, and as NVA were killed around the perimeter of the fighting, their bodies were being removed.
VN: This meant that you had actually walked into the rear of units that were attacking the 2/503.
Rascon: It appeared as such. Moments later, the leader of the point squad, Sergeant Elmer R. ‘Ray’ Compton, stopped the platoon, stating he had spotted the enemy setting up a machine-gun ambush in the heavy foliage ahead of us at the fork in the path, and that they were wearing dark green and khaki uniforms and had NVA pith helmets. After that, some things are blurred in my memory, they happened so fast. Within seconds of Compton’s briefing, Pfc Neil Haffey, a grenadier, was brought forward and told to fire his M-79. As he did so, all hell broke loose. From what Haffey later told me, as he was firing his M-79, his projectile had not cleared his gun when they opened up on us. But Pfc William Thompson, an M-60 machine-gunner, somehow ended up lying on the edge of the trail. At that point, I was about 15 to 20 meters behind him with the main recon force.
VN: Could you generally see what was happening?
Rascon: Not really, other than heavy weapons were being fired in both directions. I couldn’t see what was happening up front. I remember somebody yelling ‘Doc!’ so I started forward when Platoon Sergeant Jacob Cook said to me, ‘Doc, stay down or you’re going to get killed. Don’t go until we provide you cover fire.’ But I went forward anyway, crawling on my knees to the area where I heard yelling, toward the location of the point squad. Then I saw Thompson, who had been with the point squad, lying on the path. I saw that Haffey was much farther forward and to the side of the trail, seeking cover but trying to fire his M-79. However, everyone was pinned down with firing all around and hand grenades being thrown in all directions.
VN: Can you describe what happened next? A statement written by members of the platoon says that you ‘dashed through withering enemy fire and exploding grenades without regard for personal safety to reach the dying machine gunner,’ and that therefore you also became a target.
Rascon: I could hear the NVA talking and yelling — I think they did not expect us, either. Both sides were trying to get in better fixed defensive positions. It was hell — tree limbs were falling from the machine-gun and hand-grenade explosions. I could hear Sergeants Lacuna and Cook yelling, trying to bring the remaining recon element up to outflank the enemy. However, the point squad was trapped and pinned down. It was weird — our two machine guns were up front. I don’t know how this happened. Somebody said, ‘Send the machine guns up front,’ but they did not know that [machine-gunner Pfc Larry M.] Gibson was already up there, as well as Thompson. This ended up being fortunate — it kept everybody down, and it gave me cover fire. After a few tries, I made my way to Thompson. He was face down. I lay down between his legs and tried to find out where he was hit. Both of us were looking down machine-gun alley — I could see the gun that was shooting at us and the others. But I couldn’t see or feel where Thompson was hit, so I crawled over him, turned around and put my back to the enemy fire. At this time, I could see out of the corner of my eye that Haffey, who was to the front ahead of me, was in a position where he was unable to fire his M-79, so he broke out his .45 pistol and started using that to counter the enemy. Incoming hand grenades were all over the place. I was hit by shrapnel and by gunfire in the hip — the bullet went up my spine and exited by my shoulder blade. I am only 5 feet 7 inches tall, but I managed to drag Thompson, who was over 6 feet, off the path, where I could examine him. By his wounds, I concluded quickly that he had been killed instantly.
VN: Other members of the point squad were apparently still pinned down and were running out of ammunition. But they were able to lay down covering fire and move to better defensive positions. They described how you further risked your life by retrieving ammunition belts from Thompson’s body and running through enemy fire to deliver them to the second point squad machine-gunner, Pfc Larry Gibson.
Rascon: I heard Gibson yelling for ammo. His assistant machine-gunner was not there — he was pinned down someplace else. But nobody could move forward. I crawled toward Gibson, who was on my right. He was yelling, ‘I need ammo!’ I saw he was shot in the leg and was bleeding. I said, ‘You’re shot!’ Gibson yelled back at me, ‘Get away from me, Doc!’ Gibson’s concern was to maintain his suppressive fire on the enemy. I remembered that Thompson had two bandoleers of ammo wrapped around him. As Gibson was still putting down covering fire, I went back to Thompson and stripped the bandoleers off him and brought them back to Gibson, who at that time was almost out of ammo. He still didn’t want any aid. He just wanted to keep firing at the NVA positions. As I left Gibson looking for other wounded, a hand grenade went over my head. It landed in front of Spec. 4 Jerry Lewis, a buddy of Haffey’s. I didn’t know until years later that Haffey had seen Lewis hit and killed instantly by the hand grenade and that Lewis was his best friend. At this point, Gibson, who had been able to reload, got the machine gun going again.
VN: Squad members wrote that your ‘resolute action enabled Gibson to resume covering fire for the pinned-down point squad, when it was then able to continue engaging the enemy.’
Rascon: After Lewis was hit, I started looking for other wounded.
VN: I understand that you saw a hand grenade being lobbed at Haffey, who had been wounded, that landed just 5 feet from him. You rushed through enemy fire, knocked him down and covered him with your body to protect him. The squad members’ report said you saved him from further serious injury.
Rascon: Seconds before the hand grenade landed, I saw Haffey trying to place himself in a better position, but he was shot in the hip point-blank from about 3 meters by an enemy soldier. He later told me he remembered the guy looking at him and shooting him. I saw a number of hand grenades had been thrown within meters of him. I crawled over to him and threw myself on him, knocking him down. We both ended up getting hit by the shrapnel from the grenades. Haffey’s only concern was to make sure that I could get back to Lewis to see how he was. I told Haffey I would go back to look at Lewis. I got back to Lewis, and immediately realized that the grenade had killed him instantly. After I left him, within a few seconds more hand grenades went off. One hit me in the face — that wound was the one that hurt the most! I thought my head spun around three times. The war stopped for me — everything was in slow motion. Blood was spurting out through my mouth. I thought my jaw was gone, and I was deathly afraid. I managed to pull myself together and remembered the other machine gun that had been abandoned on the trail. I was really afraid the M-60 and spare ammo would fall into the hands of the enemy, who were very close. Without much forethought, I made my way back to the trail. I grabbed the M-60, the spare barrel and two boxes of ammo. Strange to say, I was not hit that time by gunfire. I could hear everybody yelling: ‘Cover, Doc! Cover, Doc!’
VN: The squad members wrote that you went back to retrieve Thompson’s machine gun along with the ammunition, exposing yourself a third time to enemy fire, then delivered it to a gunner who immediately used it to lay down more cover fire, allowing everyone to maneuver into better-defended positions.
Rascon: At that point, I looked up and saw Sergeant Compton in a defensive position, firing. He knew he was already wounded, and as I made my way to him, I saw hand grenades thrown at him. I grabbed him and pushed him to the ground, but we both got nailed. Sergeant Compton wanted to continue his cover fire for the point squad. I could hear him still giving directions to the squad. Moments later, men from the rear had come up and were flanking the enemy, neutralizing the ambushers — I don’t remember who this was. The only people who had really been nailed were members of the point squad up front, who had been the lead element.
VN: You were wounded once again when you were covering Compton. The squad members believe that you helped save the sergeant, and they wrote that without ‘Compton’s steadying leadership, the point squad might have withdrawn and surrendered the battlefield to the enemy.’
Rascon: Without Compton’s leadership, many members of the point squad would have been pushing up daisies.
VN: What happened next?
Rascon: Within a few moments, everything went quiet. The whole thing had taken only about 10 or 20 minutes. I remember just lying there. Then I started checking out who was wounded and giving instructions on how to get the wounded out to the landing zone. As we were coming out of the jungle, the 2/503 paratroopers came immediately to our aid, assisting with the medevacing and caring for our wounded.
VN: I understand that only after all the wounded were evacuated from the battle area did you allow yourself to be treated.
Rascon: I was helicoptered to a mini-triage area set up for the battalion. They stuck me on a sawhorse litter with my clothes still on and began examining me. I complained about my mouth, but nobody seemed to care! Then I was put on a helicopter and taken to the 93rd Field Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh. As I was extracted from the helicopter, I was being stripped of my clothing, and they tried to take my M-16. I wouldn’t let go of it! I tried to tell them I was signed out for this thing. I ended up in Japan for two months in a wheelchair, then was discharged and put in the Reserves. I went to college for a while, but I really wanted to go back to the Army. In 1969 I went to OCS and got my commission as a second lieutenant of infantry. I later returned to Vietnam as an adviser.
VN: I understand the paperwork that battalion members filled out recommending you for the Medal of Honor somehow never got to the right place.
Rascon: In 1965-66, the war was just starting, and a lot of paperwork was sometimes misfiled or lost. That was what I learned later — apparently that was what happened in my situation. I remember very clearly that I had filled out statements for Silver Stars for Compton and Gibson and a Bronze Star for Haffey. But that paperwork was also lost somehow. A few years ago at a brigade reunion, we all realized that the award requests had never been processed or had been lost. So Sergeant Cook and I put in a ‘lost citation’ request-for-award for Compton, Gibson and Haffey. Since that time, Gibson and Compton have received their Silver Stars and Haffey has received his Bronze Star for valor.
VN: The Army apparently was not interested in reopening the issue of awards for this episode because awards are usually given within two years of the actions that merit them. But eventually Congressman Lane Evans got involved after the brigade veterans brought this oversight to his attention. Evans and the brigade veterans argued that, according to eyewitnesses, the paperwork for the Medal of Honor had been submitted in writing in 1966, and for unknown reasons the citation never made it up the chain of command.
Rascon: Eventually, the Army was open-minded and reconsidered the evidence. A senior Army decorations board approved the Medal of Honor, then the secretaries of the Army and of Defense approved the award, then Congress waived the time limitation and sent the approvals to the president for concurrence and the award presentation on February 8.
VN: Time and again, you have stated that you are not a hero.
Rascon: You know, it wasn’t just me. Everybody that day was a hero. Everyone who lives in harm’s way every day is a hero. And there’s nothing I did that day that I would not have done any day — it was just taking care of friends. And all of us — we were just doing our job. The men and women who served in Vietnam were in harm’s way, and by virtue of that, they are unsung heroes. An important element to remember is the intense bonding that occurs in situations like that, which continues through life. As I said, they were just doing their job.
VN: The brigade’s after-action report on Operation Silver City, which continued on for several days after this firefight, agrees with that assessment — that you and the other units did your job. It says: ‘The mission assigned to the 173d Abn. Bde. (Sep.) was accomplished. The VC MR-7 headquarters was located and destroyed. In addition, numerous other VC installations and large amounts of VC supplies and equipment were destroyed or captured. Finally, over 300 VC were killed by body count and the 271st Main Force Regiment was effectively defeated.’
This article was written by Kathy Kadane and originally published in the October 2000 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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