On this day in 1967, a soldier engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Ken Stumpf didn’t want to be drafted into the Army. He’d wanted a career in baseball.
Nevertheless, he went to Vietnam when his country called.
On April 25, 1967, Specialist Fourth Class Stumpf was in Quang Ngai Province, participating in a series of search and destroy missions. That morning, a helicopter gunner had shot and killed an enemy soldier. A second was on the run. Stumpf and his squad were dispatched to find the fleeing enemy. They’d been making their way through heavy vegetation for about half an hour when they came to a ditch. Stumpf stopped and ordered his men to wait while he checked in with his captain.
“I got back to the last man in my squad,” Stumpf later said, “and all of a sudden, it’s just like the whole world just exploded.”
He soon discovered that three of his men hadn’t exactly obeyed the order to stay. “[T]he guys I told to stay here,” he described, “they went around the corner . . . and there was a company of [Vietcong] in bunkers.”
Three men were badly injured, but also out of reach of the rest of the squad. Stumpf and his remaining three men took refuge in the ditch. “I am unbelievably scared,” Stumpf confessed, “because I can’t see the enemy. But I’m the squad leader and I also know that I’m in charge and that I have to make some decisions.”
An intense firefight ensued. After about an hour and a half, Stumpf had used almost all his ammunition, but he still couldn’t stop thinking about the three stranded men.
“‘I’m going in,” he said to those in the ditch. “I’m going in and getting my men.” The vegetation was thick, and he wasn’t entirely sure where his men were, except he knew they had to be close. He got lucky and found them quickly, quickly scooping up the one who looked the most injured.
“[I]f I learned anything in basic training,” he said, “it was the fireman’s carry. And so I got him on my back, and I got up and ran.” He was running through a hail of enemy fire but, unbelievably, he made it back to the ditch. He turned and went back for the second soldier, then the third.
“[T]he last [injured soldier] now is my big tall guy” Stumpf described. “And him, I think I probably half carried him, half dragged him because he was so big. But once I got him back into the trench, now I got my guys.”
By then, reinforcements had arrived. Soon, American artillery had blown away some of the thick vegetation, revealing the bunkers where the Vietcong were concealed.
Stumpf was furious.
“I’m mad because not only did I lose my three in the initial contact, I had lost the other three in the fighting. . . . I don’t have a squad,” he said.
He got some grenades and put them in his pocket. He ran towards the bunkers, throwing grenades as he went. He destroyed two bunkers and headed towards a third. Through a slit in the side of the bunker, he could see one of the enemy. “He was actually laughing at me,” Stumpf puzzled. “That grin, like, you know—you got caught in the cookie jar? He had that smile on his face.”
He slammed the grenade right through the slit where he could see the guy laughing, but the Vietcong threw it back out. Amazingly, Stumpf wasn’t hit. Instead, he returned to the same bunker, pulling the pins on two grenades. He held them for just a moment, then shoved them in again.
This time, the bunker was destroyed. The enemy soon began to retreat.
Stumpf would be given a Medal of Honor for his actions. “I didn’t do anything above and beyond the call of duty,” he shrugged. “What I did was my duty. I had to do that.”
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Catherine Carroll, Medal of Honor recipient speaks at Fort McCoy Community (U.S. Army Reserve; May 21, 2018)
Medal of Honor citation (Kenneth Edward Stumpf; Vietnam War)
Medal of Honor oral history (Ken Stumpf; Vietnam War)
Oral History Interview with Kenneth Stumpf (Wisconsin Veterans Museum Research Center)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)