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This Day in History: Delbert Jennings's bravery in Vietnam

On this day in 1968, a hero receives the Medal of Honor. Delbert O. Jennings had rescued 8 men from behind enemy lines in Vietnam—to say nothing of pulling his men through a 3-hour battle against the Viet Cong.

“He was literally all over the place, pulling men out of trouble, prodding others, rallying any man he could touch,” Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall wrote in a Medal recommendation for Jennings.

The determined staff sergeant had done this while struggling against stomach pains and fever. He later discovered the source of his illness: He’d contracted a case of hookworm in the jungles of Vietnam.

“My men called me Sarge,” Jennings later told a reporter. “Don’t think they knew my name was Del. I was rifle squad leader of infantry Company C, 2nd Airborne Battalion, 12th Cavalry, 1st Air Division. When any unit got in trouble, they called us.”

With such a reputation, perhaps no one was better poised to defend an artillery position, as Jennings was asked to do on December 27, 1966. He was then acting as platoon leader because other officers had been killed or wounded. He had about 160 infantry and artillery with him when trouble came.

“About 1 in the morning, wet and dark,” Jennings later described. “Real dark. We were attacked by a reinforced regiment of 1,200 Viet Cong.”

Jennings had already been awake because of the intense pain in his stomach. Now he leapt up and grabbed a machine gun. He was able to slow the charge of the enemy, but it wasn’t enough. He was soon yelling at his men to pull back, even as he provided cover for them.

“We took cover behind some ammo and food boxes dropped in that afternoon,” he described. “There were grenades in the shipment. Ripped open the boxes and started throwing grenades. I threw cases of grenades.”

The three hours that followed have been called “an epic of its own in Vietnam combat history.” Jennings was everywhere.

He manned machine guns. He went behind enemy lines to save eight stranded soldiers who were wounded. He later discovered that the area was full of mines. “Just luck,” he said of that moment. “I didn’t know the place was mined until much later.”

In one memorable moment, Jennings began throwing rocks because he’d run out of grenades. In another, he killed one of the enemy with his rifle butt, as he later described to a reporter: “One enemy crept up behind me in a bunker. I killed him with the butt of my M-16. Swung the rifle like a baseball bat. The reports said I killed 14 to 16 enemy, primarily with grenades. But I got that guy with my rifle butt.”

When asked about his bravery in the face of fire that day, Jennings response was simple; “I decided I was going to die and wanted to take as many of them with me as I could. I was a professional soldier. This is what I was trained to do.”

In the end, the small band of Americans routed the larger enemy force.

Jennings would receive the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, but he continued to serve in the Army, finally retiring in 1985 with the rank of Command Sergeant Major.

“I didn’t earn that medal personally,” Jennings concluded. “I’m representative of everybody who served in Vietnam.”

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