This Day in History: Four Vietnam Heroes receive the Medal of Honor
On this day in 1969, the Medal of Honor is awarded to four different men. Each had miraculously survived to receive his medal in person.
Because of Staff Sergeant Drew Dennis Dix (U.S. Army), fourteen civilians were rescued from a city that had been overrun by the Viet Cong. The first was an American nurse.
Dix went in for her, not knowing if she was still alive. “We pulled up to Maggie’s house,” Dix later recounted, “and it didn’t look good because . . . there could have been a thousand bullet holes in [her vehicle].” Dix saw an enemy combatant run out, but a locked gate blocked his access. He yelled for Maggie. Enemy fire was flying everywhere. Maggie found Dix at the gate. “I remember at the time saying, ‘well, get the key,’” Dix later said, “and I know how dumb that must have sounded because the building was totally in shambles.”
Would you believe the key was right there? “Kind of felt like, things are going to turn out,” Dix concluded. He spent the next two days in house-to-house combat, rescuing civilians.
Lt. Colonel Joe M. Jackson (U.S. Air Force) conducted a rescue, too, but he was flying a transport plane! He wasn’t supposed to be diving in like a fighter jet, making quick rescues. But that’s exactly what he did.
Unfortunately, three men had become trapped on an embattled airstrip. Jackson didn’t know if his big transport plane would tolerate it, but he began a rapid descent worthy of a fighter jet. He barely brought the plane out of its nose dive and landed right next to the stranded men. Just then, a rocket was spotted coming straight towards Jackson’s plane. Inexplicably, it didn’t explode. Jackson took off again, avoiding fire as he went. He’d been on the ground for less than a minute.
Lt. Clyde Everett Lassen (U.S. Navy) flew a helicopter during his own daring rescue. Two downed airmen were stranded on the side of a densely wooded hill; they were surrounded by the enemy; it was dark and nearly impossible to see.
Lassen’s first attempt failed; the stranded pilots couldn’t get to him. Lassen made a second attempt, closer to the trees, with the aid of a plane dropping flares for illumination. This attempt nearly ended in catastrophe when the flares went out, leaving Lassen in darkness. (He nearly crashed!) Another attempt also failed, prompting Lassen to make one last, dangerous move. He turned on his landing light. It made his helicopter a target for the enemy, but it also enabled the stranded pilots to find him. Amazingly, Lassen managed to get everyone back safely, although he landed with only 5 minutes of fuel left.
A final rescue was made by Major Stephen W. Pless (U.S. Marine Corps). Pless was piloting a Huey when he got a distress call from four soldiers stranded on a beach.
When he arrived, a terrible sight met his eyes. About 50 Viet Cong were attacking the trapped soldiers—even bayoneting them. Pless did several quick fly bys so his crew could take aim at the enemy. “His rocket and machinegun attacks were made at such low levels,” his citation notes, “that the aircraft flew through debris created by explosions from its rockets.” Once the enemy had been driven back, he hovered his Huey between the enemy and the wounded soldiers, creating cover so his crew could load them. The Huey was so heavy that it kept dropping into the sea as he headed out—but he made it.
Perhaps President Johnson summed it up best: “Each man heard the call of duty in an hour of hard challenge. And each man answered that call with a courage beyond demand.”
Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks Upon Presenting the Medal of Honor to a Member of Each of the Armed Services (January 16, 1969)
Editors of the Boston Publishing Company, The Medal of Honor: A History of Service Above and Beyond (2014)
Edward F. Murphy, Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes (rev. ed. 2005)
Medal of Honor citation (Drew Dennis Dix)
Medal of Honor citation (Joe M. Jackson)
Medal of Honor citation (Clyde Everett Lassen)
Medal of Honor citation (Stephen W. Pless)
Medal of Honor: Oral Histories (Drew Dennis Dix; Vietnam War)
Medal of Honor: Oral Histories (Joe M. Jackson; Vietnam War)