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This Day in History: Gary Littrell’s four demanding days in Vietnam

On this day in 1970, an Army Ranger concludes an action that would ultimately earn him the Medal of Honor. Would you believe that Sergeant First Class Gary Littrell fought, non-stop, for four days and nights?

Nor was he the only one. Nearly 500 men went into that battle. Only 42 would emerge.

Littrell (right) and two other Medal recipients (John McGinty & Robert L. Howard) as they visit troops in Iraq in 2006.

Littrell and his men had been asked to find enemy forces then harassing Special Forces in Kon Tum Province. He was one of four American advisors leading a South Vietnamese battalion of 473 men.

Unfortunately, the hunter would soon become the hunted.

The North Vietnamese found and surrounded the American/South Vietnamese battalion. Our side had the advantage of being up on a hill, but it was still badly outnumbered: The North Vietnamese had about 5,000 troops. Worse, an early artillery barrage had killed or injured three American officers and the South Vietnamese commander. Littrell was now in charge.

The days that followed must have been nearly unbearable. Food and sleep were unattainable luxuries. Littrell tried to stay hydrated by licking moisture off leaves. “You know, you just fight through the exhaustion,” he later said. “When you get tired, suck it up. Rangers lead the way. Move on. Keep charging.”

He doesn’t remember sleeping (for four days!), but he thinks he probably “leaned back against a tree and caught a 10 or 15 minute nap” when there was a lull in fire. But that’s about it. “[Y]ou get so fatigued that you just, you don’t remember everything that went on. You just remember you had your hands full.”

Perhaps the fatigue, hunger, and thirst make his actions even more amazing? Littrell was everywhere. He retrieved ammunition when it was dropped by air support; he distributed it among his men. He strengthened defenses. He evacuated the wounded until helicopters couldn’t get through anymore. He directed artillery and air support—sometimes even directing fire within yards of his own position.

Most of all, he kept spirits up and kept men fighting, even talking to the South Vietnamese in their own language.

By the fourth night, the ammunition was gone. Littrell felt sure that the next wave of attacks would do him in. “My God and I have our own thing going,” he later said. “We understand each other. And that night I knew that I would probably never see the sun shine. It was a quiet, peaceful, tranquil feeling.”

But then the next wave of attacks never came! (The North Vietnamese were seriously injured, too.) Littrell got an order to retreat—and he did. He and his men worked their way back to friendlier territory with air support helping to clear the way. “They would literally blow me a bomb crater,” Littrell said, “and we would go from crater to crater.”

And they made it.

Littrell would receive the Medal of Honor for his “sustained extraordinary courage and selflessness” during the long battle. Yet the experience had left its mark.

“[W]hen I come back from Vietnam, we were dirty, filthy, rotten dogs,” he told an interviewer. “That’s the way society viewed us. I refused to talk about Vietnam.” Fortunately, Littrell worked his way to a better place. Today, he works on Veterans’ causes, especially helping soldiers after they come home.

You won’t be surprised to hear that he remains humble about the Medal that he received.

“I’m wearing this medal for the 400 and some people that died those 4 days,” he concluded. “I’m their representative. . . . I was selected to wear it for them.”

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