On this day in 1966, the Medal of Honor is posthumously awarded to Pfc. Milton “Skipper” Olive III. He was the first black soldier to receive the Medal during the Vietnam War. But perhaps another contribution he made was even more important?
Men like Olive helped to ease racial tensions in our military, despite the difficult climate that existed in the late 1960s.
One lieutenant would later admit that he’d been “struggling to overcome a racist streak,” but that Olive’s service had radically changed his perspective. That lieutenant, James Sanford, was Olive’s platoon commander—and Olive had saved his life. “Milton Olive changed me,” Sanford told the Chicago Tribune. “I made a vow never to forget him.”
Another soldier, Robert Toporek, had a similar experience. “It was 1965, and I grew up in the South. He grew up in Chicago,” Toporek told a reporter. “We provoked each other, and so we ended up going behind our tents and beating each other up. . . . After that, we were brothers.”
Olive had volunteered for the Army when he was only 17 years old. He hadn’t finished high school yet, but he wanted to see more of the world.
How hard it must have been for his father to let him go. Olive was the only child that “Big Milton” had had with his first wife before she passed away.
“I’m over here in Never Never Land fighting this hellish war,” Olive soon wrote his dad. “You said I was crazy for joining up, well, I’ve gone you one better. I’m now an official U.S. Army Paratrooper. How does that grab you? I’ve made six jumps already.”
On October 22, 1965, Olive’s platoon was inserted into an area near Phu Cuong. They were soon engaged in a heavy gunfight with the Viet Cong, but they were getting the upper hand. The enemy was fleeing. Olive and others were in pursuit. Just then, tragedy struck. A grenade was thrown at Olive and four others.
“I’ve got it,” Olive yelled. He threw himself on the grenade, covering it with his own body. He wouldn’t survive the explosion that followed.
“It was the most incredible display of selfless bravery I ever witnessed,” Sanford would later say. Olive had saved the four men who were with him. All would survive the war. They would go home to become fathers and grandfathers. Olive would never have any of that, of course. He’d made the ultimate sacrifice, dying when he was just shy of 19 years old.
Perhaps it was poetic justice that the Vietnam War’s first black Medal recipient would save four men from a variety of backgrounds—and a variety of races?
Vince Yrineo would carry the tattered remnants of Milton Olive’s dog tag for decades afterwards. “To me,” he told a journalist, “it’s something sacred.” Another survivor, John Foster, would later speak of his feeling that “since Milton died, I’m living for two people, not one.”
“In that incredibly brief moment of decision in which he decided to die,” President Johnson concluded at Olive’s award ceremony, “he put others first and himself last. . . . [It is] the hardest, but the highest, decision that any man is ever called upon to make. In dying, Private Milton Olive taught those of us who remain how we ought to live.”
Catherine Reef, African Americans in the Military (2004)
Don Terry, The Men Of Olive Company: Four Soldiers Survived Vietnam Because Milton Olive Didn’t (Chicago Tribune; May 12, 2002)
Edward F. Murphy, Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes (rev. ed. 2005)
Jonathan D. Sutherland, African Americans at War: An Encyclopedia (2004) (Vol. 1)
Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks Upon Presenting the Medal of Honor (Posthumous) to the Father of Milton L. Olive III (April 21, 1966)
Medal of Honor citation (Oliver L. Milton III, Vietnam)
Tina Sfondeles, Vietnam War veterans reunite in Chicago to honor Milton Olive (Chicago Sun Times; Aug. 26, 2016)