On this day in 1969, a hero receives the Medal of Honor. Jack Howard Jacobs was a self-described “city kid” from Brooklyn who never expected to become a military hero.
He was, however, the son of a World War II veteran, and he knew the importance of service. He signed up for the Army after graduating from Rutgers because “it was my obligation to serve,” but he expected “that I would serve three years, and then get out and go to law school.”
Twenty-one years later, he was still in the Army.
Jacobs’s Medal action came on March 9, 1968, as he served in an advisory capacity to a battalion of South Vietnamese. They’d been pursuing a particular enemy unit for months and hoped to finally launch a major attack on a critical enemy base.
It wouldn’t work out that way. The enemy had discovered the plan, and they’d prepared an ambush. Maybe worse, the scouts that were supposed to be in front of Jacobs’s group weren’t in position. “To this day I have no idea where they were,” Jacobs later shrugged.
The ambush, when it came, struck hard. Jacobs estimates that 75 men were killed or wounded in just the first 10 to 15 seconds of the attack. Jacobs was wounded, too, taking a hit to his head. He was losing a lot of blood, although he didn’t know how much.
“There are a couple of things that go through your mind,” he described. “The first is that, if you’re going to stay where you are, you’re going to die. The second thing was my perception that I was probably the only guy in a position to do anything . . . . The third was the perception that this was a genuine crisis, and something had to be done . . . [Last] the old observation by Hillel . . . . “If not you, who? And if not now, when?”
He leapt into action, ordering the men to withdraw and organizing a defensive perimeter. He was still bleeding profusely and couldn’t see out of one eye.
“I run, shoot, carry, drag, bleed,” he wrote in an autobiography. “I don’t reload but instead snatch abandoned weapons from the battlefield.”
He believed that he was about to die. In an interesting twist, the seeming inevitability of death calmed him down, helping him to do what needed to be done.
He ran under fire to evacuate a seriously wounded adviser, administering lifesaving first aid. Then he ran again for the company commander, who had also been wounded. Back and forth he went, saving as many as he could.
He’s credited with saving 14 men.
“Capt. Jacobs made repeated trips across the fire-swept, open rice paddies, evacuating wounded and their weapons,” his citation concludes. “On three separate occasions, Capt. Jacobs contacted and drove off Viet Cong squads who were searching for allied wounded and weapons, single-handedly killing three and wounding several others.”
When Jacobs was finally evacuated to a field hospital, he’d lost a lot of blood and was barely hanging on. He hadn’t realized it in the moment, but he’d broken many bones in his face. More than a dozen surgeries were ultimately required to put him back together.
He never regained his sense of taste or smell.
His country was appreciative, awarding Jacobs the Medal of Honor about a year and a half later. Yet Jacobs remained humble.
“I don’t consider myself a hero, and I doubt if you’ll find very many recipients tell you that they consider themselves heroes, because they were just doing what they had to do.”
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Colonel Jack Jacobs & David Fisher, Basic: Surviving Boot Camp and Basic Training (2012)
Colonel Jack Jacobs & Douglas Century, If Not Now, When?: Duty and Sacrifice in America’s Time of Need (2008)
Jack Howard Jacobs Collection (Library of Congress)
Medal of Honor citation (Jack H. Jacobs; Vietnam)
Medal of Honor oral history (Jack H. Jacobs; Vietnam)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)