The commanding general of a U.S. infantry division is authorized to award any decoration up to and including the Silver Star, which ours occasionally did in the afterglow of a major battle. We would follow up with the appropriate orders and a citation to memorialize the award. In most cases, recommendations for decorations came from field commanders, and I convened a board of officers about once each week to review them on behalf of the division commander. I was given a roster of officers who had been assigned to the Awards & Decorations Review Board, and called three to sit on each week's panel. I generally selected one senior officer, lieutenant colonel or colonel, to chair the board, and two lower grade officers, captain or major, to fill it out.
Generally, I gave them the date, time, and place, and they dutifully showed up. The first time, however, I called the 9th Infantry Division Provost Marshall, a full colonel, to chair the board, he listened to my summons and asked, “Am I the senior officer on the board?” When I replied that he was, he informed me that he would tell me the date, time, and place of the meeting and hung up. I waited a few heartbeats and called him back to ask when and where he wanted to convene the board. He asked for the time and place I had called with. After I repeated the information, he said that would be fine and hung up again. We had a delightful relationship following that first encounter. I always respected officers who wore their mantel of authority well, and effectively destroyed any hope of a career in the Army by disrespecting those superior to me who I had to bully to get anything done.
The Awards & Decorations board rarely disappointed me with their decisions, however there was one that drove me to discard their votes and have them recast by another panel. A medic was cited for having rushed headlong to save a fallen comrade despite a hail of gunfire directed on him from a Viet Cong ambush. The victim was the point man of an American patrol who had sprung the ambush before his comrades entered the killing zone. As he fell, all of the Americans went to ground except for the medic. He rushed forward and covered the fallen man with his own body until the enemy was driven back, and then provided life-saving aid. He was recommended by the unit commander for an award of the Silver Star. The Awards & Decorations board were inclined to agree until I read the closing line of the recommendation; the medic was a conscientious objector. Personally, I found it noble that he served in combat even though his status could have shielded him from being drafted into the Armed Services. The panel of officers that day voted unanimously to reduce his award to a Bronze Star with “V” device signifying valor. The medic was ultimately awarded the Silver Star that he, in my opinion, deserved.
My most humbling duty was investigating and memorializing recommendations for the Medal of Honor. I was honored to work on four. Each required great care to detail and a thorough investigation to insure the validity of an award of the highest honor. I was pleased and astounded to learn years later that every one of them was awarded.
I bound each recommendation for award of the Medal of Honor in a three inch loose-leaf binder approximately three inches thick. It was divided into several sections including a detailed description of the action being cited, witness statements, intelligence assessments of enemy strengths and deployments, operational orders, weather reports, and everything else that I could provide that would help a panel of senior officers, located in a Washington, D.C. office, truly understand and appreciate the danger to which the individual had exposed himself and the significance of his accomplishment as well as the consequences of his possible failure.
Recommendations for award of the Medal of Honor often require years to process and reach a determination. Thus, I did not learn the outcome of those I investigated until after I left the Army three years after my tour of duty in Vietnam ended. I have a copy of Heroes: U.S. Army Medal of Honor Recipients by Barret Tillman, that mentions all four of the acts of valor that I investigated. Unfortunately, space limitations in his book seem to preclude complete explanations of their acts of heroism above and beyond the call of duty.
The most unusual recommendation that I investigated involved two persons acting in concert. Even more unusual is the fact that neither was killed nor wounded in the action. It is hard to imagine just how much danger was involved if the recommended recipient is not only alive, but also uninjured. However, in this instance, I was able to put my astonishment into words and the reviewing authority agreed.
Keller and Wright became impatient with their platoon leader who was trying to provide accurate map coordinates to the supporting artillery, and Keller began crawling to the opposite end of the dike away from the Viet Cong in the treeline, taking an M60 machine gun with him. Wright followed.
They then began to attack the remaining bunkers in the same fashion, one at a time, Keller laying down suppressive fire with his machine gun, and Wright approaching the bunker and tossing grenades inside.
Soon, the VC in the treeline began directing all of their fire on the two soldiers racing from bunker to bunker. The American platoon watched dumbfounded at the scene as it played out. Some even stood for a better view, until they realized that they should begin firing on the VC in the treeline to support their buddies.
After destroying the last bunker, Wright and Keller rushed the treeline although both had expended all their ammunition and grenades. However, by this time, the remaining VC decided to retreat.
Wright and Keller found VC weapons discarded on the ground on the opposite side of the treeline when they burst through, and picked them up to continue their pursuit of the fleeing VC. They discarded them as these too ran out of ammunition and they continued their pursuit with other discarded weapons that they recovered. Their buddies didn’t catch up until they ran out of ammunition and discarded weapons, and let the remaining VC escape.
It was not common for the VC to flee in a disorganized retreat. They were excellent fighters who employed hit-and-run tactics effectively. However, on this occasion, they must have sensed that there was some other force at work that they couldn’t contend with.
Our Division Commanding General flew to the site of the action and pinned Silver Stars on both men. He then ordered the division Chief of Staff to have our office arrange for Keller and Wright to be reassigned to Division Headquarters to complete their tours of duty in relative safety while their recommendations for the Medal of Honor were processed. My investigation took several weeks, and was constantly interrupted by complaints that the two men were “misbehaving.” They weren’t very good garrison soldiers.
The fourth and final recommendation for the Medal of Honor that I investigated was approved and the honor went to PFC Sammy L. Davis. He had just celebrated his twenty-first birthday when the fire support base that his unit was defending came under attack by an enemy battalion. Fifteen hundred Viet Cong attacked an American howitzer battery of four canons and forty-two men. The Americans loaded their 105mm howitzers with “Bee Hive Rounds” that fire 18,000 tiny darts - flechettes - and waited for the order to fire while a human wave assault approached.
When Davis regained consciousness, he found himself at the bottom of a foxhole with enemy soldiers swarming around his howitzer. They were attempting to turn it on the other three howitzers in the battery. One of them fired a bee hive round that swept the Viet Cong away from the gun and impaled Davis with more than thirty flechettes in his legs and buttocks. His flak vest saved him from more serious injuries.
Davis gathered up another bee hive round, powder, and primer and reloaded the weapon. Working alone, in the dark, with enemy overrunning his position, Davis had to stop frequently and lay low to avoid detection. Eventually, he was able to reload it despite the fact that its tires were on fire, and the flames licked at the breach where he was working. Not only was he in danger of being burned, but also of a premature detonation of the round.
He fired the howitzer and began reloading it when he heard cries for help from a buddy he recognized on the opposite side of the river bordering the island where his battery had set up.
To appreciate what happened next, you must understand two things. Streams in that part of the Mekong Delta are deep and wide, almost as though they had been dug out by a machine. There was no shallow water. Secondly, Davis was extremely weak from his wounds.
Despite these facts, Davis grabbed an air mattress he had in his foxhole and began paddling across the stream under enemy fire. He found his buddy and two other Americans, wounded and needing help. He made two round trips to ferry all three to relative safety.
With more than fifty separate wounds, Davis finally allowed himself to be evacuated.
You won’t find all this information in Tillman’s book. As I mentioned, although it is an excellent resource, he could not have included all of the research data on each incident. Basically, he has reproduced a portion of the citations that accompanied each award. But you can hear Davis talk about the action and its aftermath in a video on the Internet at http://vimeo.com/13075124 .
My memory of those incidents, on the other hand, remains as fresh as the day I investigated them. It was an honor to serve such men in some small way.