On this day in 1969, a hero engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Gordon Roberts was then serving in the 101st Airborne, just as his father had done during World War II.
On July 11, then-Specialist Fourth Class Roberts was in the A Shau Valley. “Delta company, which was our sister company,” Roberts later explained, “the battalion commander and his headquarters . . . were surrounded and very much in danger of being overwhelmed.”
He would later learn that 78 of the 80 trapped soldiers had been wounded or killed. They needed help—and they needed it badly.
Roberts’s platoon was dispatched to help. Helicopters would bring our soldiers in and drop them off close to Delta company.
“[W]e had a system which we were trained with on how to tie Swiss seats and rappel right off the helicopter for about 50 feet, down in,” Roberts described. “Once my squad then got down on the ground, we secured that area so that the remaining helicopters could come on in.”
Roberts and his men had just begun moving down a ridge line when the enemy attacked. Heavy automatic weapons and grenade fire pounded our men, injuring four.
“While they were trying to evacuate them out,” Roberts said, “I just simply moved to eliminate that first bunker. There were 2 people in that bunker, and once I was able to eliminate him, I was able to get right up on the bunker and secure it. When I got up on top of the bunker, I actually did something fairly foolish. I was waving to the rest of the company to let them know that the area was secure. When I stood up to do that, another bunker, which had coverage over that bunker, shot at me and hit my rifle.”
His rifle was out of commission. He grabbed another weapon from the enemy bunker he’d just taken out. “I had no idea how much ammunition was in that rifle,” he shrugged, “and I was going to be limited in terms of what I could use. I had 7 or 8 grenades on me at the time. So I simply started using those. And the next bunker I was able to eliminate that way, and then continued on.”
Roberts was alone, his citation describes, “cut off from his platoon . . . . [and fighting] through a heavy hail of fire.”
Nevertheless, he took out four enemy bunkers before he was through, and he finally reached the American soldiers who needed help. Making multiple trips, he helped to evacuate these soldiers to safety.
Roberts completed his tour of Vietnam in April 1970, and he was awarded the Medal of Honor one year later.
Would you believe that he was just 20 years old when he received the Medal? He was then the youngest living Medal of Honor recipient, and he maintained that status for decades until Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta was awarded the Medal in 2010.
“I wear the Medal for a lot of the folks I served with,” Roberts concluded, “which were equally as brave as I or anyone else was in the unit. We fought well, I think, as a team.”
Humble, as so many Medal recipients are.
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Interview with Gordon Ray Roberts (Veterans History Project; Library of Congress website)
James H. Willbanks, America's Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan (2011)
Medal of Honor citation (Gordon Ray Roberts; Vietnam)
Medal of Honor oral history (Gordon Roberts; Vietnam)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)