On this day in 1965, a Marine risks his life in an action that would ultimately earn him the Medal of Honor. It would be just the first of several commendations for Harvey “Barney” Barnum.
Barnum might never have been a Marine at all but for an experience in high school. His school hosted a Marine recruiter during his senior year. Apparently, the students were so boisterous and rowdy that the recruiter denounced them immediately: None of them, he declared, were fit to be Marines.
Barnum loved it! He knew that he had to be a Marine.
The fall of 1965 found Barnum on assignment in Pearl Harbor, but he decided to volunteer for a temporary assignment to Vietnam. Then-bachelor Barnum hoped that he could fill a spot, leaving someone else free to spend the holidays with his wife and kids.
On December 18, Barnum’s battalion was marching to the village of Ky Phu. If only they’d known that Viet Cong fighters were lying in wait. The Viet Cong allowed part of the battalion to pass by before striking. They hoped to divide the Americans, leaving some of them isolated and vulnerable.
Unfortunately, Barnum’s company was bringing up the rear, so they were the ones who got isolated and cut off from their comrades. Worse, the initial attack mortally wounded the company’s commander, Paul Gormley. The radio operator was also killed.
“We were taken under intense fire,” Barnum later recalled. “It was the first time I had ever been shot at. So, I hit the deck. And when I looked up from underneath my helmet, all these young Marines were looking at me like ‘Lieutenant, what are going to do?’”
Barnum leapt into action. He pulled the dying Gormley back into cover. He’d risked his life to do it, but to no avail. Gormley died within minutes. Barnum rushed out again, this time to retrieve the company’s radio.
Because of Barnum, some wounded men were evacuated first. He reorganized the men, and he used the radio to direct aerial attacks. These efforts cleared a landing area for transport helicopters.
“Harvey was on the radio himself,” one witness later said, “and called for the chopper to land on a small hill near the wounded men. The pilot responded that the hill was ‘too hot to land in,’ or words to that effect. Whereupon, Barney, with the radio on his back, walked out onto the hill and said to the pilot, ‘Look down here where I am standing. If I can stand here, by God, you can land here!’ And the chopper did, although the hill in fact was under fire at the time. And Barney got his wounded out.”
Barnum’s company had a big problem: Darkness was falling. They needed to get back to the village to join everyone else. And fast. But no one could help. “You know, skipper, you gotta come out,” Barnum was told. “We can’t come get you. We’re in our own fight in the village. You’re on your own. If you don’t come out, you’re in there by yourself tonight.”
Barnum was low on ammunition and he was outnumbered, but it didn’t matter. He had to act. He urged his men to make one last run toward the village. The unexpected run, into the open, took the enemy by surprise.
“It is the worst feeling in the world to charge across fire-swept ground,” he later said. “You’re right in the open. But I told everyone, Once we start, guys, there’s no stopping. . . . And when it came my turn, I never ran so damn fast in my life!”
Amazingly, Barnum’s company made it to the camp—and they immediately helped with its defense.
Would you believe that Barnum later chose to go back to the war zone in Vietnam, even though he had other options? Perhaps you would. After all, he was a United States Marine.
David H. Hugel, Harvey C. “Barney” Barnum: His Journey from Connecticut Schoolboy to Living Marine Corps Legend, Leatherneck: The Magazine of the Marines (June 2010).
Medal of Honor citation (Harvey C. Barnum, Jr., February 27, 1967)