Share This Article

Although President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9981 ended segregation in the military in July 1948, Vietnam was the nation’s first fully integrated war. Texan Jimmy Stanford, a lieutenant in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which in May 1965 became the first major Army unit in Vietnam, felt uncomfortable with the desegregation. He had grown up in a segregated town and said the “N-word” occasionally. But he didn’t consider himself prejudiced and was thankful for every man in his 3rd Platoon of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment.

Stanford’s senior platoon sergeant, Vince Yrineo, a 35-year-old Hispanic who had endured racial prejudice, was quick to call his platoon leader out. “I simply wasn’t going to take that from some redneck shavetail [second lieutenant], and I wanted him to know right away where I stood,” Yrineo recalled years later.

One of Yrineo’s soldiers was Milton Lee Olive III, an 18-year-old black Chicagoan everyone usually called “Skipper.” His mother died four hours after he was born on Nov. 7, 1946.

Much of Olive’s youth was spent in Chicago with his father and other family members, but he also stayed on his grandparents’ farm in Lexington, Mississippi, where he went to an all-black high school that was an extension of a church.

In January 1964, during Olive’s second year of high school, the 24th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing the right to vote without paying poll taxes that had been used to suppress the black vote in the South. Olive became one of the 3,000 students participating in “Mississippi Freedom Schools,” which taught black students about their rights and their potential to bring change at the polls. When the school year ended in 1964, Olive became a volunteer in The Mississippi Summer Project to register black voters.

The escalating violence concerned Olive’s grandmother, who sent him back to Chicago. In Chicago, the 17-year-old learned that some of his credits earned in Mississippi didn’t count, and he would have to repeat his sophomore year. Discouraged, he left school to find a job, but that didn’t pan out either. On his 18th birthday Olive enlisted in the Army. In a letter home he wrote: “You said I was crazy for joining up. Well, I’ve gone you one better. I’m now an official U.S. Army Paratrooper.”

One month after the 173rd Airborne arrived in Vietnam, Pfc. Olive joined the unit there. His cherubic countenance, quiet demeanor and tendency to avoid vulgar language earned a second nickname: “Preacher.”

On Oct. 22, 1965, helicopters inserted Olive’s unit into dense jungle outside Phu Cuong, near Saigon, where it was engaged by a large enemy force. The Americans returned fire, forcing the enemy into a retreat, and Stanford rallied his men to give chase. But Stanford, Yrineo, Olive and two other soldiers ran into an ambush. “Look out, lieutenant, grenade,” Olive shouted, as one landed in the middle of the group. And then the private threw his body over the explosive, giving his life to save four comrades.

“It was the most incredible display of selfless bravery I ever witnessed,” Stanford said later.

On April 21, 1966, the elder Milton Olive, who had remarried, and his wife, Antoinette, were at the White House when President Lyndon B. Johnson detailed their son’s heroic acts. Stanford looked on as Olive became the first black recipient of the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War. Stanford “changed drastically after that day [in Vietnam],” Yrineo told me, and said the two men became “very good friends.”

“A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about him,” Stanford said. “Milton Olive changed me. I made a vow never to forget him.” 

—Doug Sterner, an Army veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, is curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor, the largest database of U.S. military valor awards.

This article was published in the August 2018 issue of Vietnam