On this day in 1946, a future Medal of Honor recipient is born. Charles “Chuck” Hagemeister was a Nebraska native who perhaps hadn’t intended to enter the Army in the first place.
“In high school, Vietnam had just started,” he later recounted. “We were just barely getting involved. And there was talking about, you know, if you didn’t stay in school, you’d get drafted and you’d be in Vietnam before you knew it. So I graduated from high school and went on to the University of Nebraska. Decided I’d sit out a semester, earn some money to go back to college. And, while I was working, I got my draft notice.”
He went, of course. “You serve. You don’t refuse it,” he concluded many decades later.
By early 1967, Hagemeister was in Vietnam, serving as a combat medic. But something interesting happened along the way.
Hagemeister was standing with his fellow draftees as the Army was announcing who would be going to which unit in Vietnam. Would you believe that he was joking about getting the Medal of Honor!? “What a great opportunity,” he laughed to the man standing next to him. “I can go to the 1st Cav, I can get my Medal of Honor, no Purple Heart, and come back and get out of the Army.”
Incredibly, that’s almost what happened!
In March 1967, the 20-year-old Hagemeister was with his company as it patrolled and searched villages. Company leaders were told that they would need to link up with another company that had come under attack.
But as Hagemeister’s platoon entered the area, it was ambushed. The enemy was coming at the Americans from three different directions.
“More fire than I had ever seen in my life was coming in,” Hagemeister later reported. “We were surrounded right away.”
Several soldiers immediately went down, and Hagemeister rushed to their aid. As he was attempting to put a dressing on the head of his platoon leader, he could see an enemy combatant coming at him. Hagemeister picked up the platoon leader’s rifle and (in his words) “shot the guy.”
His Medal citation is much more effusive.
“Hagemeister seized a rifle from a fallen comrade,” his citation notes, “killed the sniper, 3 other enemy soldiers who were attempting to encircle his position and silenced an enemy machine gun that covered the area with deadly fire.”
Hagemeister was pretty busy after that. He manned the radio, communicating the status of the platoon and directing fire at the enemy. When another platoon couldn’t find Hagemeister and those with him, he ran to retrieve those reinforcements and to show them the way. He continued to help the wounded, “despite the fact that his every move drew fire from the enemy.”
Finally, all the wounded had been evacuated. Lives had been saved because of Hagemeister.
“What I did on the 20th of March was I did my job,” Hagemeister later concluded. “Yeah, I had to do some things that were probably not required of a medic. . . . [and] nobody would have thought anything if I hadn’t done it. But what I was doing that night was for the love of my fellow soldiers . . . to make sure that the majority of us or as many as possible of us came out of that ambush alive.”
Spoken humbly, like a true American hero.
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Department of the Army, Soldier’s Guide: The Complete Guide to US Army Traditions, Training, Duties, and Responsibilities (2016)
James H. Willbanks, America’s Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan (2011)
Medal of Honor: Oral Histories (Charles Hagemeister; Vietnam)
Medal of Honor citation (Charles Chris Hagemeister; Vietnam)