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This Day in History: Danny Petersen's sacrifice in Vietnam

On this day in 1970, a hero engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Specialist Fourth Class Danny J. Petersen was the only Kansas native to receive the Medal during Vietnam.

His deeds have received relatively little attention outside of local media in Kansas, yet his heroic actions might be comparable to those of another, more famous Medal recipient, as one Kansan suggests.

That second recipient is none other than Audie Murphy.

“Both men stood exposed atop armored vehicles and held off large numbers of attacking enemy while under heavy fire,” a Topeka resident wrote in a letter to the editor of The Topeka Capital-Journal, “thereby saving the lives of numerous others. The difference is that Murphy survived his heroic action and lived to receive his Medal of Honor.”

Interesting how some Medal recipients receive so much acclaim, while others sacrifice for their country in relative obscurity?

Petersen enlisted in the Army during the spring of 1969 and was soon dispatched to Vietnam. By January 1970, he was serving as an armored personnel carrier commander in Tay Ninh Province.

Our men were then engaged in a combat action against the North Vietnamese, Operation Toan Thang IV. Petersen was right in the thick of it, and he leapt into action on January 9 when he saw another armored personnel carrier become disabled by an enemy attack.

Its crew was pinned down by a “heavy onslaught of enemy small-arms, automatic-weapons, and rocket-propelled-grenade fire,” according to Petersen’s citation, but Petersen moved his own armored personnel carrier between the disabled vehicle and the enemy. Once there, he acted as a shield, firing relentlessly on the enemy and giving the soldiers in the other vehicle time to make repairs.

But he wasn’t done yet.

Petersen moved his vehicle still closer to the enemy, coming within 10 feet of that heavily fortified position. Just then, Petersen’s carrier took a direct hit. The driver was badly wounded, but Petersen again leapt into action. He carried the driver 45 meters, under fire, until he was able to leave the driver in a place of relative safety. He then returned to his damaged carrier, jumping aboard to provide cover fire as his fellow soldiers withdrew.

“Despite heavy fire from three sides,” his citation concludes, “he remained with his disabled vehicle, alone and completely exposed. Sp4c. Petersen was standing on top of his vehicle, firing his weapon, when he was mortally wounded. His heroic and selfless actions prevented further loss of life in his platoon.”

Petersen’s family received his Medal of Honor from Gerald Ford in 1974. As Ford presented the Medal, looking at a mother who had lost her son, he read a letter that Abraham Lincoln once wrote in a similar situation.

“I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement,” Lincoln wrote, “and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

Where would this country be but for brave men and women such as these?

Enjoyed this post? More Medal of Honor

stories can be found on my website, HERE.

Primary Sources:

  • 7 Medals of Honor Presented (St. Louis Post-Dispatch; July 18, 1974) (p. 4C)

  • Abraham Lincoln, Letter to Mrs. Bixby (Nov. 21, 1864) (reprinted HERE)

  • Brian Sanders, May 16 Memorial Planned At Petersen's Gravesite (Holton Recorder; May 5, 2015)

  • Ford Honors Men Killed in Vietnam (Charlotte Observer; July 18, 1974) (p. 5F)

  • Kansas Couple Receives Medal of Honor for Son (Wichita Eagle; July 18, 1974) (p. 7A)

  • Medal of Honor citation (Danny John Petersen; Vietnam)

  • Receive Medal of Honor for Son Killed in Viet (Atchison Daily Globe; July 18, 1974) (p. 1)

  • Tim Hrenchir, Kansas native earned Medal of Honor (Topeka Capital-Journal; Jan. 10, 2020)

  • Tribute to 7 Dead GIs (K.C. Times; July 18, 1974) (p. 1D)



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