November 8, 1965: Specialist Five Lawrence Joel defies orders to stay his ground. Joel was a medic working in the 173rd Airborne when the paratroopers were sent on a patrol for Viet Cong soldiers during Operation Hump. The men walked into an ambush and were outnumbered six to one. Taking heavy casualties, Joel did his job as the medic in the field. Almost every soldier in the lead squad was either wounded or killed. Joel tended the wounded even after being shot twice himself. He not only tended men from his own unit, but assisted with men from another company.
One of Joel’s injuries was a gunshot wound to his calf. He bandaged this and kept working. As the day wore on, he used a makeshift crutch and Sp4c Randy Eickhoff provided covering fire while Joel limped around the battlefield searching for supplies to help with his depleted stock. Joel attended to 13 wounded men and saved the life of a man with a severe chest wound by improvising and using a plastic bag to seal the wound. The battle lasted for over 24 hours. After Joel’s own hospitalization and recovery in both Saigon and Tokyo, he was awarded the Silver Star for his efforts on this day.
On March 9, 1967, Joel stood on the White House lawn and President Lyndon Johnson presented him with the Medal of Honor. The last time a living African-American had received this honor was during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Nearly a month later, on April 8, the city of Winston-Salem held a parade in honor of the local hero. It was said to have been the largest tribute the city had every staged. Joel retired from the military in 1978 and died in 1984. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team is an airborne infantry brigade of the US Army. It was activated in 1915 and saw service first in World War I. They are most famously known for their service in the Vietnam War, especially for Operation Hump and Operation Junction City. Between 1965 and 1971, they lost nearly 1,800 men with many falling at the Battle of Dak To. During this time, there were 7,700 decorations, including over 6,000 Purple Hearts awarded to this unit’s soldiers.
“A country grows in history not only because of the heroism of its troops on the field of battle, it grows also when it turns to justice and to right for the conservation of its interests.” – Aristide Briand
“Heroism is endurance for one moment more.” – George F. Kennan
“It is not tolerable, it is not possible, that from so much death, so much sacrifice and ruin, so much heroism, a greater and better humanity shall not emerge.” – Charles de Gaulle
“I don’t believe in war as a solution to any kind of conflict, nor do I believe in heroism on the battlefield because I have never seen any.” – Thor Heyerdahl