The medal features neither gold nor pearl. It is not inset with any glittering precious stones. But the American Medal of Honor is one of the rarest decorations awarded by any nation.
The Medal of Honor can be awarded to any officer or enlisted person who has ‘distinguished himself [herself] conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his [her] life above and beyond the call of duty.’ The medal is presented ‘in the name of Congress’–hence the frequent erroneous reference to it as the Congressional Medal. To date, 4,121 Medals of Honor have been authorized, with U.S. Army personnel receiving the majority (the most recent on January 21, 1998, to a World War II hero).
The present Navy/Marine Corps Medal of Honor is little changed from the original design of Civil War days. The Army’s award, by contrast, has gone through two design changes. The present Army award–also used by the Air Force until 1965–consists of a bronze star surrounded by a green laurel wreath suspended from a bronze bar on which is inscribed the word ‘Valor’ surmounted by an eagle. In the center of the star, the head of Minerva, Roman goddess of righteous war and wisdom, is surrounded by the words ‘United States of America.’ There is a green oak leaf on each ray of the star. The back of the medal is engraved with the words ‘The Congress to [name of the recipient].’
In 1965 the Air Force announced its own Medal of Honor design, according to Edward F. Murphy of the Medal of Honor Historical Society. ‘The five-pointed star was retained, as was the green-enameled wreath and the oak-leaf-filled prongs. The main change was the replacing of Minerva with the head of the Statue of Liberty, looking now to the viewer’s left instead of right, as had Minerva. The eagle was gone, too. In its place a bar bearing the word ‘Valor’ was placed above an adaptation of the thunderbolt sprays from the Air Force’s coat of arms. The medal is about 50 percent larger than its Army and Navy counterparts.’
Since a Medal of Honor recipient has to have acted with outstanding bravery, the Defense Department painstakingly scrutinizes all available evidence before picking its heroes. The process begins when a witness to an act of heroism recommends an individual for the award. The case then works its way up through the Defense Department hierarchy. The award is ultimately approved by the president before it is presented.
In President Theodore Roosevelt’s day, he stipulated that presentation of the Medal of Honor should take place at a formal ceremony. Since that time, most have been placed around the neck of the recipient or the nearest living relative if it is a posthumous award (and most are), by the president.
The conflict that raged in Southeast Asia produced more than its share of heroes. In all, 239 persons who served in Vietnam received the Medal of Honor, beginning with U.S. Army Captain Roger Hugh C. Donlon for his conspicuous gallantry in defending Camp Nam Dong on July 6, 1964. Here are some of the other Medal of Honor recipients as described in the official Congressional citations:
JIMMY G. STEWART
Staff Sergeant Jimmy G. Stewart was a member of the U.S. Army’s Company B, 2nd Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division. Early on the morning of May 18, 1966, a reinforced North Vietnamese company attacked Company B, which was manning a defensive perimeter.
The onslaught wounded five members of a six-man squad, leaving Sergeant Stewart alone to defend vital terrain. It became virtually a battle of one man against an entire platoon. Refusing to take advantage of a lull in the fighting that would have allowed him to withdraw, Stewart held his ground to protect his five fallen comrades and prevent the enemy from breaking through the company’s perimeter.
The enemy attacked his lone position with full force, and Stewart fought like a man possessed. He emptied magazine cartridge after cartridge at the enemy. The NVA drove almost to his position and threw grenades, which Sergeant Stewart threw back at them.
After exhausting his ammunition, he crawled under intense fire to his wounded team members and collected ammunition that they had not expended. He then held his position for four hours, through three assaults, killing many enemy soldiers. Because of his incredible one-man defense, the company position held until a reinforcing platoon arrived, which counterattacked the North Vietnamese.
Stewart’s body was later found in a foxhole, where he had advanced to add his fire to that of the reinforcing platoon. Eight enemy dead were found around his immediate position, with evidence that another 15 bodies had been dragged away. The American wounded for whom Stewart sacrificed his life were later evacuated.
CHARLES B. MORRIS
On June 29, 1966, Charles B. Morris was serving as a U.S. Army sergeant assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Sensing that the enemy was present in his area of operations, Morris went ahead of his platoon to reconnoiter. In so doing, he unwittingly crawled to within 30 yards of an enemy machine gun. He was fired upon and seriously wounded, but returned fire. Having killed the enemy gunner and fired at the crew, Sergeant Morris continued his reconnaissance. He returned to the platoon to report his findings. When the platoon came under heavy fire, Morris hurriedly assigned his men to better firing positions. Then, for eight hours, the platoon engaged the numerically superior foe.
Morris finally acknowledged that he needed medical attention, but the platoon medic had been killed. Morris administered first aid to himself and was returning to treat wounded members of his squad with the medic’s first-aid kit when he was again shot. He lost consciousness, but as soon as he regained it, he went right back to treating the other wounded men.
Noticing that an enemy machine gunner had maneuvered into position behind his platoon and was firing at his men, Morris and another soldier crawled toward the weapon. His comrade was killed, and Morris was wounded a fourth time. Firing his rifle with one hand, Morris silenced the machine gun. He later recovered from his wounds.
After the battle, documents found on a dead enemy soldier revealed a planned ambush of a South Vietnamese battalion. Use of this information prevented the ambush and saved lives. Morris also saved lives by his willingness to lead and protect his men, while treating the wounded and while continually under enemy fire.
JAMES ANDERSON, JR.
James Anderson, Jr., a private first class in the U.S. Marine Corps assigned to Company F, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, received the Medal of Honor for his actions on February 28, 1967, northwest of Cam Lo. Private First Class Anderson’s company was hacking its way through dense jungle in an effort to save a besieged reconnaissance patrol.
Anderson’s platoon, which was the lead unit, had advanced only a short distance when it came under intense enemy fire. The platoon reacted quickly, returning fire. Anderson found himself tightly bunched together with other platoon members and close to enemy positions.
Several American soldiers were wounded by the enemy assault. Suddenly, a grenade landed in the midst of the pack of men and rolled alongside Anderson’s head. Instead of being concerned about his own safety, Anderson grabbed the grenade, pulled it to his chest and curled his body around the explosive as it detonated. His body absorbed most of the impact of the explosion. By his act of supreme self-sacrifice, Pfc Anderson saved fellow Marines.
DAVID G. OUELLET
On March 6, 1967, David G. Ouellet was a Navy seaman attached to River Squadron 5, My Tho Detachment 532, serving as the forward machine-gunner on river patrol boat (PBR) No. 124 on the Mekong River. On duty during the early evening hours, Seaman Ouellet saw suspicious activity near a riverbank. He alerted his captain and recommended that the boat move toward the area. While the PBR was conducting a high-speed reconnaissance run, Ouellet spotted a grenade coming toward the vessel. He left his protected position to run the length of the boat and warn crew members to take cover.
Seeing the captain standing unprotected on the bridge, Ouellet pushed him to safety. In the split second that followed the grenade’s landing, Ouellet placed himself between it and his shipmates, absorbing most of the blast fragments with his body. His heroic actions in protecting his shipmates, at the cost of his own life, were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Navy.
STEPHEN W. PLESS
Marine Captain Stephen W. Pless, from Newnan, Ga., received the Medal of Honor for action near Quang Ngai on August 19, 1967. Serving as a Bell UH-1E pilot during an armed escort mission, Pless monitored an emergency call indicating that the downed crew of another American helicopter was stranded on a nearby beach and in danger of being overwhelmed by VC.
Pless flew to the scene and saw a group of about 40 enemy troops, some of whom were clubbing and bayoneting the crewmen. He quickly launched a rocket attack, killing or wounding many of the VC and driving back the rest. Seeing one wounded American gesturing for help, Pless maneuvered his helicopter into position between the crewmen and the enemy, shielding them from the intense VC fire long enough for the chopper crew to retrieve the three crewmen who were still alive. When the wounded men were all aboard, Pless skillfully maneuvered his dangerously overloaded chopper back to base. Unfortunately, only one of the wounded crewmen survived his injuries, but Pless surely saved the lives of that man as well as his own crewmen through his heroic efforts.
Lance Sijan was a U.S. Air Force captain who flew combat missions over North Vietnam. He told friends he had a premonition he would be shot down and hunted like an animal. On November 9, 1967, Captain Sijan was flying a mission out of Da Nang. An electrical problem caused the plane’s bombs to explode near the aircraft, ripping it apart. Sijan ejected in total darkness. His helmet, parachute and auxiliary survival pack tore away as he landed.
More than 24 hours later, Sijan awoke in severe pain. The fingers of his right hand were bent back almost to his wrist and he had also suffered a multiple fracture of his left leg. Sijan propped himself up and turned on his radio. Around daybreak, a U.S. pilot heard his directional beeps. Soon, rescue helicopters were on their way, but Sijan could not be seen from the air, and when the helicopters flew low to determine where the beeps were coming from, they encountered enemy fire. Near dusk, Sijan saw treetops churning. ‘Drop the penetrator,’ he radioed. The cable landed on the jungle floor, 20 feet from him. ‘I see it,’ Sijan radioed. ‘I’ll crawl to it.’ Despite his severe injuries, he began slowly dragging himself across inhospitable ground. Hearing nothing, the operations commander ordered the helicopter to try again to contact Sijan. When there was no response, the chopper returned to its base. Sijan turned on his radio just in time to hear an Air Force pilot say, ‘We’ll be back in the morning.’
At dawn, a rescue helicopter radioed Sijan, indicating that it was ready to retrieve him. But Sijan, by now unconscious, failed to respond. Rescue crews concluded he had either been captured or was dead.
Sijan awoke the next day and, seeing a valley in the distance, began crawling toward it, eating bugs along the way to stay alive. NVA soldiers eventually found him 46 days after his plane had exploded.
Seemingly near death, Sijan was dumped on a mat and assigned only one guard. Sijan whispered something to draw the guard close to him, then knocked the guard out cold with a karate chop and crawled back into the jungle.
Soon recaptured, he was taken to what was known as ‘Bamboo Prison,’ where he was interrogated. Sijan refused to provide any information that could in any way be useful to the NVA. He was thrown into a cell with other captured American pilots and immediately began plotting his escape. Tortured repeatedly, he steadfastly refused to divulge classified information. The three American fliers were eventually transferred to a Hanoi prison.
In his cell, Sijan grew progressively weaker. He died on January 22, 1968, but his story was spread by word of mouth among other POWs. Author Malcolm McDonnell, a high-school friend, wrote about Captain Lance Sijan’s harrowing ordeal in a book titled Into the Mouth of the Cat. In 1976, President Gerald Ford presented Sijan’s posthumous Medal of Honor to the captain’s parents.
CHARLES C. ROGERS
The Medal of Honor was bestowed on Lt. Col. Charles C. Rogers for action near the Cambodian border. Rogers was serving as commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 5th Artillery, 1st Infantry Division, during the defense of a fire support base. In the early morning hours of November 1, 1968, the base was pounded with mortar, rocket and rocket-propelled grenade fire. Simultaneously, it was attacked by a human-wave ground assault.
With complete disregard for his own safety, Colonel Rogers moved through a hail of fragments from bursting enemy rounds toward the embattled area. Once there, he encouraged the stunned artillery crew members to man their howitzers and directed their fire onto enemy positions. Rogers was wounded by an exploding round and fell to the ground, but he quickly picked himself up and led a counterattack against an enemy unit that had penetrated the howitzer positions.
Wounded a second time, Colonel Rogers nonetheless continued pressing the attack. Refusing medical treatment, he drove the enemy from their positions and worked to re-establish American defensive positions. When a second human-wave attack was launched against another sector of the perimeter, Rogers directed artillery fire onto enemy units and spearheaded a second counterattack against the enemy.
At dawn, the North Vietnamese launched a third attack on the fire support base. Rogers moved to the besieged area and again directed artillery fire onto the enemy. While leading his men against determined enemy attackers, he was seriously wounded by mortar fragments. But his heroism under fire inspired defenders of the fire support base to defeat a numerically superior foe. His resolute spirit reflected greatly upon himself and the U.S. Army.
LESTER W. WEBER
Lester W. Weber was a lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps attached to Company M, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. The Medal of Honor was awarded to Weber posthumously for action in Quang Nam province on February 23, 1969.
At the time, Weber was serving as a machine-gun squad leader. The 2nd Platoon of Company M had been dispatched to assist a squad from another platoon that was fighting a well-entrenched enemy battalion. Weber’s platoon came under heavy attack while the men were moving through a rice paddy. Although the enemy soldiers were hidden, Weber managed to find and attack one of them. He then overwhelmed another NVA in hand-to-hand combat.
Seeing two additional enemy soldiers firing on his comrades, Weber then raced across an open area and wrestled their weapons from their hands. Although by now the target of concentrated fire, Weber remained in an exposed position in order to shout words of encouragement to his comrades. As he prepared to attack a fifth enemy soldier, Weber was mortally wounded. His courage and absolute devotion to duty made him an exemplary U.S. Marine.
While in college, Gary Beikirch read The Green Berets, by Robin Moore, and was so impressed with the book that he enlisted in the Army’s elite Special Forces. Sergeant Beikirch eventually became a Green Beret medic, assigned to Dak Seang, a remote Vietnamese village.
Early on April 1, 1970, enemy troops launched a devastating attack on the village. Sergeant Beikirch grabbed his medic’s kit and raced across an exposed slope to treat an injured Vietnamese. Amid flying bullets and shrapnel, he carried another wounded villager to a bunker. He then heard of an injured American lieutenant and quickly went to move him from a dangerous position, exposing himself to enemy fire in the process. Hit by a mortar round and seriously wounded, he managed to drag himself forward, tend to the officer’s wounds and crawl back to the bunker, pulling the lieutenant behind him. Refusing medical treatment, Sergeant Beikirch made seven more trips through enemy fire to retrieve the wounded.
While dragging a civilian to safety, Beikirch was hit by an exploding rocket that drove shrapnel through his back and out through his abdomen. Nonetheless, he continued working, finally collapsing from loss of blood. He later recovered. The Medal of Honor was awarded on Beikirch in 1973.
ROY P. BENAVIDEZ
Some 13 years after nearly dying for his country, Army Master Sgt. Roy P. Bena-videz was awarded the Medal of Honor for action on May 2, 1968, in the jungle west of Loc Ninh. (See ‘The Last Medal of Honor,’ as told by Roy Benavidez in the October 1991 Vietnam.) The son of a Texas sharecropper, Bena-videz enlisted in the Army at age 19. By age 32 he was a seasoned member of the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
On that May afternoon, then Staff Sgt. Benavidez was among a group of soldiers who were standing near a jeep, praying around a white altar cloth that had been spread over its hood. Their prayers were suddenly interrupted by helicopter pilots dashing by, as well as by confused chattering that had started coming from a nearby short-wave radio.
Benavidez ran after one of the pilots to find out what had happened. He was told that a 12-man Special Forces team had been sent to check out reports of enemy troop movements in the area and had suddenly found themselves in the middle of an NVA battalion. Realizing that he had often worked with this team, Benavidez voluntarily joined the crew of a rescue heli-copter rushing to their aid.
Under heavy attack, the Special Forces team had formed a circle in a jungle clearing, where a rescue helicopter was supposed to pick them up. At times during the fighting, enemy soldiers were no more than 25 yards away from the Americans. Because small-arms fire made it impossible for the helicopter he was in to land in the clearing, Sergeant Benavidez urged the pilot to land at another clearing that was 75 yards away.
When the chopper reached the second clearing and was hovering 10 feet above the ground, Bena-videz jumped. Landing on his feet, he began running, but was soon shot in the right leg. The sergeant fell but then jumped up and began running again.
A grenade exploded in front of Bena-videz and shrapnel tore into his face. Again he fell, but once again he got up and ran, eventually reaching his comrades. Bena-videz found eight of the men alive, but bleeding profusely. He pushed six of them and half-carried two others into a clearing.
Benavidez then returned to retrieve the body of the team leader, as well as the classified documents in his possession. In so doing, he was hit by small-arms fire and grenade fragments. Pitching over in a somersault, he landed flat on the ground, but did not remain there for long. Then the heli-copter pilot was killed, and the rescue chopper crashed. Benavidez rallied the survivors and led them back into the jungle. Using a radio, he called in air support, seeking to suppress enemy fire and enable another rescue helicopter to land.
When another chopper reached them, Benavidez helped two wounded comrades climb aboard. On the way back to help the others, he was confronted by an NVA soldier, who struck him in the head with the butt of his rifle and then came at him with a bayonet. Benavidez grabbed the weapon, cutting his hand. He then stabbed the NVA.
Summoning his last reserves of strength, Benavidez picked up two wounded Americans and headed toward the chopper. Nearing it, he saw two enemy soldiers who had not been noticed by the door gunners. Benavidez shot both NVA and then barely avoided being shot himself by the door gunners, who momentarily mistook him for the enemy. He eventually pulled himself on board the heli-copter and passed out. When the chopper landed at Loc Ninh, a doctor took one look at the severely wounded Bena-videz and said there was nothing he could do for him. At that point, Benavidez opened his eyes and–unable to speak–defiantly spat at the doctor. He subsequently recovered from his wounds.
Sergeant Benavidez received the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second-highest award for valor, in 1968. In 1973, after more detailed accounts of what had happened became available, Special Forces mission commander Lt. Col. Ralph R. Drake insisted that Benavidez receive the Medal of Honor. By then, however, the time limit for bestowing a medal had expired. An appeal to Congress by a Texas congressman and a U.S. Army representative created an exemption in this case.
At the Pentagon on February 24, 1981, President Ronald Reagan draped the Medal of Honor around Roy Benavidez’s neck and said, ‘Sergeant Benavidez, a nation grateful to you, and to all your comrades living and dead, awards you its highest symbol of gratitude for service above and beyond the call of duty.’
As diverse as Medal of Honor recipients are, there are nonetheless recurring themes that characterize them all. They speak of the power of leadership, of the significance of particular circumstances that led them to undertake valorous actions, of becoming absolutely committed to a course of action and of faith in something or someone greater than themselves. All of us should take pride in their heroism. The soldiers who fought and died in Vietnam deserve no less.
A retired political science professor, Joe Zentner is a frequent visitor to the Congressional Medal of Honor Museum located on the hangar deck of USS Yorktown in Charleston (S.C.) Harbor. Suggestions for further reading: Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes, by Edward F. Murphy (Ballantine); And Brave Men, Too, and Valor, by Timothy S. Lowry (Berkeley).
This article was originally published in the June 1998 issue of Vietnam magazine.
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