The Marine rushed through a hail of enemy fire.
Harvey Curtiss “Barney” Barnum Jr. was born a Marine. It simply took 18 years for him to grow into the uniform and sign the paperwork. From early on, he exhibited a drive to face every challenge, seize every opportunity and make the most of each moment. Barnum, born in Cheshire, Connecticut, on July 21, 1940, decided to become a Marine during a high school “Military Day” when various recruiters pitched their programs to a group of unruly and disrespectful students. The Marine Corps recruiter bluntly told them, “There is no one here worthy of being a United States Marine.” Barnum was determined to prove otherwise.
While earning his degree at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, Barnum took the Marines’ Platoon Leaders Class. By the fall of 1965, 1st Lt. Harvey Barnum was an artillery officer at the Marine Barracks in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. When a new program was introduced to send the barracks’ company-grade officers to the cauldron of Vietnam for a two-month stint to get a better understanding of the war, Barnum volunteered to be the first officer in the barracks to go.
Upon arriving in Vietnam, Barnum was assigned to serve as an artillery forward observer, part of a three-man team that directed the firing from the “big guns” supporting troops in the field. On Dec. 18, 1965, his team was working with H Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, during a battalion movement outside the village of Ky Phu in South Vietnam’s northern province of Quang Tin as part of Operation Harvest Moon.
Barnum, who had been in Vietnam only 14 days, got his baptism of fire without warning and with devastating results when H Company was ambushed. The Marines’ commanding officer was hit, as was his radioman. “Doc” West, the unit’s Navy corpsman, was wounded repeatedly as he attempted to reach the fallen men.
Frightened and disorganized infantrymen struggled while trying to return fire and determine their course of action. One by one the men began to turn their gaze to the young artillery officer they hardly knew—but who was now the highest-ranking officer present. Barnum could sense their fear and read the question in their eyes: “What now, sir?”
Barnum led by example, rushing through the hail of enemy fire to rescue the wounded Navy corpsman, then returning to recover the mortally wounded commander and radioman. Strapping the radio on his own back, he began calling in air strikes on the enemy forces.
Retired Marine Col. James M. Callender, who was Barnum’s regimental commander at the time and wrote the first draft of his Medal of Honor citation, recalled: “Harvey was on the radio himself and called for the chopper to land on a small hill near the wounded men. The pilot responded that the hill was ‘too hot to land in,’ or words to that effect. Whereupon, Barney, with the radio on his back, walked out onto the hill and said to the pilot, ‘Look down here where I am standing. If I can stand here, by God, you can land here!’ And the chopper did, although the hill in fact was under fire at the time. And Barney got his wounded out.”
For four intense hours, standing in the open to direct fire and encourage his new command in counterattacks, Barnum gave confidence to the fearful and inspiration to the weary. By day’s end the men faced one final challenge, a 300-yard dash across an open rice paddy to join the rest of their battalion at Ky Phu. They tackled that challenge as a team, braving enemy fire and assisting their comrades when they fell.
Barnum’s Medal of Honor was presented by Secretary of the Navy Paul H. Nitze on Feb. 27, 1967. Barnum retired from the Marine Corps as a colonel in 1989.
Doug Sterner, an Army veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, is curator of the world’s largest database of U.S. military valor awards.