On this day in 1973, a hero receives the Medal of Honor. Just over two years earlier, Sp4c. Michael J. Fitzmaurice had fought a battle in Vietnam, half-blinded, yet still managed to make it home.
Fitzmaurice was a native of the Dakotas, leaving those states for the very first time when he signed up for the Army. By March 1971, he was thousands of miles away in Vietnam, serving with the 17th Cavalry, 101st Airborne Division.
His squadron was then helping to guard an air strip at Khe Sanh in South Vietnam. American planes were using the strip as a base for missions into Laos. The 21-year-old Fitzmaurice had just gotten off guard duty. It was about 2:00 in the morning.
“I’d just come back to go to bed,” he later described. “I think Phil was gonna go out. And the rockets and stuff started coming in, and it was like daylight out there.”
North Vietnamese sappers were charging through the perimeter wire.
“A sapper was one of their most highly trained people,” Fitzmaurice explained. “They were kind of like a suicide bomber would be today. They come through the wire and just run into the bunkers and blow themselves up.”
The sappers were coming in fast, infiltrating bunkers and trenches. Fitzmaurice immediately leapt to help, but was soon faced with an unwelcome sight: Three grenades had been thrown into the bunker next to him. He threw two out, but he didn’t have time to get rid of the third.
“He then threw his flak vest and himself over the remaining charge,” Fitzmaurice’s citation describes. “By this courageous act he absorbed the blast and shielded his fellow-soldiers.”
Needless to say, the blast left Fitzmaurice badly injured. He’d partially lost his vision, and blood was streaming down his face.
Fitzmaurice knew he had to keep going, though. “Just keep going until you can’t,” he later said. “It was Phil and me out there against the world.”
Fitzmaurice could barely see, but he resumed firing at the Vietnamese. Phil was yelling directions at him, so he’d know where to fire. At one point, his weapon was blown out of his hand by the force of another grenade. He felt around for a new weapon, but he couldn’t find one. Instead, he was forced into hand-to-hand combat with an enemy combatant who was suddenly on top of him. He overcame the enemy, returned to his bunker and began fighting again.
He refused evacuation. He just kept fighting until the conflict was over.
Fitzmaurice was badly injured by the time he was finally evacuated. Besides the partial loss of sight, his eardrums where shattered, and he had shrapnel throughout his body. The injuries were so severe that they landed him in the hospital for 13 months.
But Fitzmaurice had no idea how his life was about to change—again. He’d resumed normal life and was hard at work in a meatpacking plant when he learned that he would be receiving the Medal of Honor. He had no idea that he’d even been nominated.
“I don’t know what made me do what I did,” he concluded. “I [was] just doing the job I was supposed to be doing, and I do not regret it a bit.”
Edward F. Murphy, Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes (rev. ed. 2005)
Medal of Honor: Oral histories (Michael Fitzmaurice; Vietnam War)
Medal of Honor: citation (Michael Fitzmaurice; Vietnam War)
Michael Fitzmaurice: North Dakota Medal of Honor recipient honored others by continuing to serve (U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs video; Nov 10, 2016)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)