On this day in 1947, a future Medal of Honor recipient is born. The action in which Leonard Keller was engaged was so intense that both he and another soldier would receive Medals for their efforts.
Keller had been drafted into the Army when he was barely 19 years old. He was young, of course. But he wasn’t one to sit around, either, watching while others died. On May 2, 1967, he acted upon that principle—despite the fact that he’d been told to retreat.
“When you’re laying there or sitting there and you’re hearing other kids—and I was a kid at that time—screaming and crying that they want their mother and the only thing that’s hurting them is what’s on the other side of that rice paddy, I have to do something about it,” he said many years later. “I’m just the kind of guy that I’m going to do something. If you don’t want to do something, get out of my way, because I’m going to have to do it.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
His unit had been sent to rescue a company that had been ambushed by the Viet Cong. Many of those soldiers had been killed instantly. The rest were now trapped. It took hours for Keller’s unit to get into a position to help.
“When we got up to do the frontal assault,” Keller later reported, “there was a lot more of the Vietnamese than they thought there was, so they called a retreat.”
You don’t think Keller was too likely to turn around, do you? He had other plans. He turned to another soldier that was with him, Raymond Wright. “I said, ‘Ray, let’s go get these guys.’ And he said okay.”
The two American soldiers worked their way toward enemy lines. One would lay down a base of fire, neutralizing return fire from an enemy bunker while the other ran forward and threw in a grenade. Then the two men would switch places. In this systematic fashion, they destroyed seven enemy bunkers.
Keller’s Medal citation notes the manner in which, again and again, “with utter disregard for the fire directed to them, the 2 men charged, killing the enemy within.” They did this, despite being “almost continuously exposed to intense sniper fire.” Finally, the enemy was forced to flee.
Both men would be awarded the Medal of Honor.
The Medals were given to Keller and Wright in a September 1968 ceremony. The President reportedly had tears in his eyes! He was proud of those two men and told them so.
Keller and Wright were among the lucky few who lived and came home to tell the tale of how they’d earned a Medal. Unfortunately, Keller would not be so lucky a few decades later. In 2009, he was tragically killed when he lost control of his motorcycle on the way home from a Fleet Reserve Association veterans’ club meeting. He’d outlived Wright, who passed away in 1999.
Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that some of Keller’s friends and colleagues had no idea that he’d received a Medal of Honor. They found out after he died.
So many of those Medal recipients are so humble, aren’t they?
“He was a patriot who made every other veteran proud,” one of Keller’s friends would say after his death. “I think that is the best way you can describe him.”
Alex McVeigh, Army buries Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient (U.S. Army website; Dec. 2, 2009)
Christy Goodman, Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Leonard B. Keller laid to rest (Wash. Post; Dec. 1, 2009)
Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks at the Medal of Honor Ceremony (Sept. 19, 1968)
Medal of Honor citation (Leonard B. Keller; Vietnam)
Medal of Honor citation (Raymond R. Wright; Vietnam)
Medal of Honor oral histories (Leonard Keller; Vietnam)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)
Suzanne Seay, Silent farewell: Quiet hero recalled on his birthday (Post-Star (Glens Falls, New York); Dec. 5, 1999)