On July 5, 2022, President Joe Biden awarded the Medal of Honor to retired Army Maj. John J. Duffy for conspicuous gallantry while serving as the sole American adviser with the 11th Airborne Battalion, Vietnamese Airborne Division. The U.S. military’s highest decoration was presented 50 years after Duffy’s heroic conduct on April 14-15, 1972.
Duffy’s story and that of the acting South Vietnamese battalion commander, Maj. Le Van Me, during the North Vietnamese Army’s Easter Offensive are described with riveting detail in retired Col. William “Bill” Reeder’s book, Extraordinary Valor: The Fight for Charlie Hill in Vietnam. On March 31, 1972, the 2nd Brigade, Vietnamese Airborne Division, was deployed to the Central Highlands and ordered to occupy old U.S. firebases on terrain nicknamed “Rocket Ridge,” the key high ground northeast of the provincial capital, Kontum.
The 11th Airborne Battalion, the brigade’s reserve, was inserted by helicopter at Firebase Charlie on Easter Sunday, April 2. Shown on topographic maps as Hill 1020 and Hill 960, the positions were critical to the overall defense of the ridge.
The Easter Offensive, which began on March 30, 1972, was an all-out conventional campaign to defeat the South Vietnamese armed forces and humiliate the United States. In a three-pronged assault, the NVA struck across the Demilitarized Zone in the north, at An Loc, only 60 miles from Saigon, and in the Central Highlands near the tri-border area of Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam. The principal U.S. personnel directly involved in the fighting were aviators and a handful of advisers working with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. The battles were fought almost exclusively with ARVN ground troops.
In the Highlands, two reinforced NVA divisions were poised to swarm across Rocket Ridge, capture Kontum and move south to attack Pleiku. Their goal was to then turn east, advance to the coast and sever South Vietnam at its midsection. First, they had to take the ridge. The NVA commander planned to unhinge the Airborne’s 2nd Brigade defense by overwhelming Firebase Charlie with massed infantry assaults supported by intensive, continuous artillery fire.
The communist weapon of choice was the Russian 130 mm field gun, firing a 73-pound high explosive projectile. NVA forward observers were seeded throughout the area and directed devastating fire on the defenders.
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One of the early casualties was Lt. Col. Nguyen Dinh Bao, the 11th Battalion commander. When Bao was killed, Me, the battalion executive officer, took over.
Duffy, a Special Forces officer, was on his third Vietnam tour. The American and Me, who controlled Vietnamese air force A-1 Skyraider attack planes, orchestrated multiple airplane and helicopter gunship strikes to thwart enemy attacks and hit the 130 mm guns pummeling Charlie. Author Reeder, flying an AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter, was one of the U.S. Army helicopter pilots who braved intense groundfire to keep Charlie from being overrun.
Five days of constant NVA onslaughts and heavy artillery fire finally forced remnants of the 11th Airborne Battalion off Firebase Charlie. Duffy sustained multiple shrapnel wounds, and Me had a serious chest wound. On April 14, the two officers led the small force off the hill. Carrying their wounded, they were all that remained of 471 paratroopers who landed at the firebase on Easter Sunday.
Using Duffy’s well-placed airstrikes, they fought through an NVA ambush and kept their pursuers at bay. The following day, 36 men were able to reach a landing zone and, under heavy fire, were extracted by U.S. helicopters. Without Duffy and the brave aviators, they would not have survived.
For his actions over that two-day period, Duffy was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but the 1972 recommendation was downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross. Several years ago, a review board reexamined the old recommendation and after a detailed evaluation forwarded the request for approval of the Medal of Honor to the White House.
Reeder’s excellent book, published in June 2022, had no bearing on the review board’s deliberations, but it certainly reinforces the wisdom of the outcome.
Some readers may take issue with the reconstruction of dialogue that took place five decades ago. However, the author conducted multiple interviews and listened to hours of tapes between Duffy, forward air controllers and pilots dropping ordnance near Firebase Charlie to re-create what was said during those trying days. For American soldiers who were on the ground in similar circumstances, those conversations have a ring of authenticity unmatched in many Vietnam War books.
In the war’s aftermath, military analysts praised the role of U.S. airpower in blunting the Easter Offensive. Indeed, it was decisive, but would have been for naught if the South Vietnamese soldiers, particularly the 11th Airborne Battalion paratroopers, had not stood their ground and tenaciously fought the NVA.
This book review appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Vietnam magazine.
Extraordinary Valor: The Fight for Charlie Hill in Vietnam
By William Reeder Jr.
Lyon Press, 2022