On this day in 1969, a hero receives the Medal of Honor. Clarence Sasser didn’t expect to be a military hero. To the contrary, he was in college, studying chemistry, when he was drafted.
Full-time college students could get a deferment, but Sasser was only part-time. He was working his way through school and didn’t have the luxury of being a full-time student.
Once in the Army, Sasser trained to be a medic. By the fall of 1967, he was in Vietnam. “It was a hard and dangerous life,” he later said of his first months, “but it was also enjoyable and fulfilling because of the camaraderie of the men and the experience of doing something that I thought was important.”
Everything would change on January 10, 1968. On that day, then-Pfc. Sasser went into heavy combat for the first time. He was aboard one of several helicopters intended to drop a reconnaissance team into enemy territory.
“We go in, and the helicopters start taking fire,” Sasser described, “rockets—a thoroughly bad situation. One of the helicopters got hit and plunked down in the water.” Naturally, the others stayed to support the helicopter that had been shot down.
“Just as I was getting out of the door,” Sasser later wrote, “I was shot through the leg. It was a superficial wound, but it pitched me into the rice-paddy mud and water that was about two and a half feet deep.”
Sasser’s company would suffer 30 casualties in the first 30 minutes, but it was just the beginning of a very long and difficult day. Sasser was crawling all over the rice paddy, trying to get to the wounded men who were calling for help. He quickly learned that the best way to get around was to grab the rice sprouts and slide along, almost as if he were swimming.
“You could move better like that than to try to, of course, stand up,” he mused. “If you stood up, you were dead. Especially if they see your bag, they know you’re a medic. You know, you kill a medic, a lot of people probably would die. It was the rationale.”
Sasser was taking hits, one of which, he later said, “almost just totally sprayed my back.” Nevertheless, he kept going, kept moving. He administered first aid where he could. When he ran out of bandages, he worked to move men to a safer location.
“Each platoon had a medic,” he later wrote, “but I was the only one who survived. . . . Consequently I ended up treating a lot of people regardless of what platoon they were in. In my mind there was no way I could not have gone to see about someone who hollered ‘Medic’ or called “Doc.’ There was no way that I could justify not going or at least trying to go see about that person.”
By the end of the day, Sasser couldn’t walk anymore. He’d been hit too many times, and his legs were immobilized. Nevertheless, he crawled and dragged himself from wounded soldier to wounded soldier.
“My job was to care for the guys, maybe get them to carry on,” he said.
Our soldiers were stuck there all night, with Air Force Phantom pilots flying overhead, keeping the enemy at bay. Sasser continued working on the wounded, but it was hard. He would never forget the sounds of wounded or dying men calling for help in the dark.
Finally, Sasser and the others were evacuated at about 4:00 in the morning. By then, 34 had been killed and 59 wounded—almost the entire company.
Sasser was taken to Japan where he was treated and told that he’d been recommended for the Medal of Honor. He would eventually be awarded the Medal about a year later. “It was really an experience,” he said, “from my background, of course, you know, poor farm family and everything.” He was happy that his mom and sisters were flown to D.C. for such an experience.
At the end of the day, though, he was humble about the Medal he’d been given.
“It was my job,” he said simply. “I don’t think what I did was above and beyond.”
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Medal of Honor citation (Clarence Sasser; Vietnam War)
Medal of Honor oral histories (Clarence Sasser; Vietnam War)
Michael Lee Lanning, Texas Aggies in Vietnam: War Stories (2016)