This Day in History: John Baca's heroism in Vietnam
On this day in 1970, a soldier engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Specialist Fourth Class John Baca must have seemed an unlikely hero? He’d once been a troubled teenager, even going to juvenile hall for petty crimes.
“The best thing was getting drafted,” he later said. “Because you know, I probably would have maybe spent a little time in jail.”
The Army saved Baca—and Baca returned the favor by saving several of his fellow soldiers.
Baca was drafted straight out of high school in 1969. By February 1970, he was in Vietnam serving with a heavy-weapons platoon. His company had been ordered out to set up an ambush, along with a rifle platoon. Our soldiers were helicoptered to their target at dusk and left to establish their position.
Part of their effort, of course, was to set up trip wires that would alert them to activity in the area.
Suddenly, something set off a trip wire. The scene that followed was chaotic, as explosions and other fire ripped through the area. Some of our soldiers left to investigate. Meanwhile, Baca worked to set up his firing station.
An assistant machine gunner ran past Baca, covered in blood. Baca’s recoilless rifle was knocked over as the machine gunner passed. Then Baca saw it: A grenade had landed close to his position.
“It’s like time stopped,” he later described. “And all these thoughts go through my mind. Do I pick it up and throw it? Do I stand on it? Do I run from it? What do I do? If my mom finds out, she’s going to really be upset.”
In the end, he decided to smother the grenade with his own body. He put his helmet under his stomach and fell on top of the grenade just before it exploded.
“My whole life flashed through me and my childhood,” he said. “It’s like my mom and my sisters were right in front of me. And the next moment I’m on my back, and I thought I was severed in half. . . . I saw my stomach coming out and it just didn’t look good. But I was peaceful. There was no pain. It was the most beautiful moment I ever had in my life. It was hands holding me, and it wasn’t somebody I could see. I could just sense a presence of God right then.”
Baca is credited with saving 8 of his fellow soldiers. And, unbelievably, he survived the experience—even though Baca wasn’t evacuated for nearly two hours after the grenade blast.
Since then, the once-troubled youth has become an inspiration for others. He’s helped veterans, and he’s even traveled back to Vietnam to help build a clinic. Yet the service that he’s offered to Gold Star families has perhaps been uniquely helpful.
“I tell them about those dying moments I had,” he explained. “How peaceful and gentle. I know there were angels, you can’t put it into words, but I know they were ready to bring me up into the heavens.”
Hmm. Who knows? Maybe Baca was saved, at least in part, so those Gold Star families would know that their loved ones are in good hands.
What do you think?
David Whiting, These Vietnam veterans help so others will never be abandoned again (Orange County Register; May 29, 2015)
David Whiting, Selfless veteran, a Medal of Honor recipient, given a brand-new truck for his heroism (Orange County Register; Nov 4, 2016)
Jeanette Steele, Park named after Medal of Honor recipient whose old San Diego neighborhood became resettlement area for Vietnamese refugees (LA Times; Dec. 3, 2017)
Medal of Honor citation (John Baca; Vietnam)
Medal of Honor oral histories (John Baca; Vietnam)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)