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This Day in History: James Anderson's Medal of Honor

On this day in 1967, a hero engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. James Anderson Jr. was the first black Marine to receive the Medal, so perhaps his story is appropriate on the last day of Black History Month?

“This Marine, in particular,” the United States Marine Corps website states, “accomplished in an instant, what most people will never do in a life time.”

In some ways, Anderson was an unlikely hero. The California native seemed destined to be a pastor, not a soldier. Those who knew him best described him as peaceful, caring, and gentle. He played clarinet in his high school band. “His whole life was centered on being a minister and working for the Lord,” his sister Mary later told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “That was his purpose.”

Ultimately, it was that caring spirit that prompted Anderson to join the Marines. He took a break from junior college and enlisted in the Marine Corps in February 1966. He still hoped to go back and resume his studies, but for now he was serving his country.

Anderson was deployed to Vietnam in December 1966. Three short months later, he found himself in an impossible situation.

Anderson’s company was then just northwest of Cam Lo, in Quang Tri province. The Marines were working to rescue a reconnaissance patrol when they themselves came under attack. Anderson’s platoon was in the lead, and it was hit just as the Marines were entering a jungle. The sounds of small arms and automatic weapons fire whizzed through the air as the Marines took cover and returned fire. The jungle was dense, and they were trapped in a relatively small space, barely able to move.

Anderson was lying on his stomach, shooting at the enemy through the branches when a grenade rolled close to his head.

He really had no time to contemplate what he would do—or even to throw the grenade back. If it detonated with so many Marines in such a tight space, most of them would die or be seriously injured. Anderson had to have known that. He acted, seemingly without hesitation.

“[H]e reached out,” his citation recounts, “grasped the grenade, pulled it to his chest and curled around it as it went off.”

A few of his fellow Marines were still injured by shrapnel, but Anderson had absorbed most of the force of the explosion himself. He’d given his life that his comrades might live.

Anderson’s parents were notified of their son’s death by Major William T. Macy, USMC. “They took it well and bravely,” Macy later said. “They’re that kind of family, proud and strong and grateful for having such a son.”

“What’s the maximum price of the Medal of Honor?” one local reporter would ask as he reported on these events. “A mother’s tears and a boy’s life. . . . The cost of a Medal of Honor comes high.”

Yes, it does. But Anderson did what he did, his sister would later say, “because of his faith and his belief in mankind. He always cared about other people.”

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