Classmate Purple Hearts

Hartley Holte

In our 50 Years Later book, we identified those classmates who had been awarded the Purple Heart. It is now time to record the circumstances of those awards. Unfortunately, a few have already passed on and, for some, we may not be able to retrieve their “stories”. These would be John Curnutt, Jim Dickinson, and Jim O’Neal.

Three of our classmates who died in Vietnam were eligible to receive the Purple Heart. Jim Griffin died immediately following the crash of his Navy plane in Hanoi. This story is fairly well described in his brief bio in 50 Years Later. Henry Serex’ USAF loss has been documented in part in our 50 Years Later also, as well as in the movie, BAT 21, a number of years ago. Don Rissi was lost while he was a USAF crew member of a B-52 flying a combat mission over Vietnam. The remaining awardees stories available are as provided below.

The remarkable story of Pete Eller was included in our 50 Years Later as one of those who had also been awarded the Silver Star for his 1964 involvement in a rescue operation for the crew of a helicopter which had been shot down, and we commend that story for your reading on page 15. The part from his citation resulting in the PH reads, “At the crash site, the (Marine) company was taken under heavy fire by an estimated Viet Cong Regiment. Despite the intense automatic weapons and small arms fire, Captain Eller calmly directed air strikes on the Viet Cong who were closing all around him. Captain Eller was severely wounded in the nose and cheek, and was partially blinded by the heavy flow of blood, however he continued in an attempt to regain communications with air support. With all communications gone, and faced with an overwhelming enemy, he steadied the troops and effected an orderly withdrawal. Despite his own wounds, he twice refused medical evacuation until he had personally supervised the evacuation of all Vietnamese dead and wounded.”

Scot McCauley said that, “The (my) PH came about in ’68 from my days as Commander River Assault Squadron Nine operating in the rice canals of Dihn Tuong and Kien Hoa provinces. 40 of my 52 river assault boats were troop carriers carrying the 9th Infantry Army and Vietnamese Marines. About every other operation, there was incoming from the mangrove trees lining the canals that resulted in a wave of shrapnel inside the boats and the opportunity for the 9th Infantry to award more medals. Most of the Navy guys ducked this process until ADM McCain (I think he was CINCPAC at the time) came down for a visit and our boss (Bob Salzer) asked that a few of us line up for the awards.”

From Art Nussel, who also received a PH, “An incident on 12-20-1966 --- Bert McCauley and I were piloting an H-34 MEDIVAC mission into a “hot” zone (about 25 miles south and a little west of Da Nang in the 3 rivers area with approach from east around the Hoi-An “horseshoe” area) to pick up 4 emergency Marine combat casualties. We came under fire in the LZ and, after loading our patients, we lifted off towards a tree line on the south end of the LZ. About 25-50 feet in the air, we came under heavy fire from the starboard side. We banked to the left and immediately took automatic fire into the engine compartment, the rotor head, and into the cabin. I was shot through the left foot, ankle, and lower right leg. We were able to maintain flight and returned to the Naval Hospital at Marble Mountain. All personnel survived. From then on until May 1969, I spent the vast majority of my time hospitalized, interspersed with intermittent light duty assignments. I was medically discharged on 7 May, 1970”. As a personal aside, he said (in 2013), “My health is great, but some movements can be difficult!"

Ed Kingston writes about his Purple Heart incident of 1968 that, “I was assigned as Commander, River Division 54, operating in what was known as the Rung Sat Special Zone, the area between Vung Tau (a coastal port) and Saigon. We operated 40 PBRs, (Patrol Boat, River) twin diesel waterjet powered (no screws) with three 50mm machine guns. These were a different type of boat from those of Scot McCauley’s. We went through the (in) famous Tet Offensive. I later got my orders and went to Ton Son Nhut airbase in Saigon to catch a plane back to the states. An hour before loading aboard, the Viet Cong hit the airbase with a rocket attack. I got hit with shrapnel in the leg. Parting gift from the VC.”

A note from Joe Perez states that similar to the incident of Ed Kingston, Norm Channell was wounded on his way out of Nam. “Norm and I were in Vietnam as naval intelligence advisors to the VNN (1964-1968); he based in Saigon at Navy section MACV Hq and I in Nha Trang at the VNN 2nd Naval Zone Hq. As I recall, Norm told me after we had both returned to CONUS, that he had been in Saigon’s Ton Son Nhut airport waiting to board and end-of-tour flight home in mid-1965 when there was a bomb blast (I believe caused by VC terrorists) within the airport which caused him to be struck and wounded by flying debris. He was treated at a medical facility nearby and released to continue his flight home. He told me that for that incident, he was awarded the Purple Heart.”

John Gonzalez provided a comprehensive account of one of his experiences in Nam which included a discussion of the July 1966 action surrounding his receipt of the Purple Heart. We have extracted the pertinent portion for inclusion here. This story has been included because it describes much of the system of the process of saving a Marine life.

Here is the abridged portion. “For the reader: I must offer a short prologue to this story, which I’m extracting from my book notes. Let us first confirm that I was in no way heroic. I just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time when North Vietnamese mortars were inbound. One that hit nearby sprayed shrapnel that entered my arm. This simply is how I was awarded the PH.” Some of the background story: John related that he was with the Marine 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion wh