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This Day in History: Robert M. Patterson's heroism in Vietnam

On this day in 1968, a hero engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Robert M. Patterson is a self-described “country boy” who grew up helping around his family’s farm.

 

“I know what it smells like to plow behind a danged old gray mule,” he laughs. “We couldn’t afford no tractors.”

 

Ultimately, Patterson quit high school to join the Army. He was barely 20 years old on May 6, 1968, when his heroic action occurred.


On that day, then-Sp4c. Patterson was serving as a fire team leader with the 101st Airborne near La Chu, South Vietnam. “[I]t was a typical morning,” he explained. “We got up, received our mission. It was to go out and do a recon on this village and find out what was really in there.”

 

He wondered if something special might be going on because the recon force seemed a little large (three troops). Nevertheless, the first several hours of the mission were fairly uneventful. It wasn’t until early afternoon that “all hell broke loose,” as Patterson later said.

 

An infantry squad near his platoon took a hard and unexpected hit, decimating their ranks. “And then, right after that, it was just one big fight,” Patterson concludes.

 

The scene must have felt chaotic. The enemy was firing rocket-propelled grenades from fortified bunkers, but Cobra helicopters also flew overhead, laying down fire in front of our soldiers. In the midst of it all, Patterson’s platoon became pinned down. His platoon sergeant had been wounded and was lying out in the open, but he was pulled to relative safety.

 

That’s when Patterson sprang into action. He later couldn’t remember any of what he’d done, but his fellow soldiers report that he ignored shouted warnings, instead grabbing his M16 and a handful of grenades. He sprinted toward the enemy.

 

His Medal of Honor citation reports that he assaulted the enemy bunkers, taking out five of them and killing 8 of the enemy.

 

 

The next morning, he was awarded a Silver Star. “And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Why am I getting this? I didn’t do anything,’” he later laughed.

 

He was even more bewildered when that Silver Star was later upgraded to a Medal.

 

“I don’t even remember the action,” Patterson said. “All I know is we went out on a patrol. We got ambushed, and the next thing I knew … it was 5 o’clock that afternoon, and I was in a 500-pound bomb crater. How I got there, I have no idea.”

 

He more or less has to guess at what motivated him to act as he did, but he thinks “it was a combination of things. Fear, adrenaline, a knowledge that something had to be done. . . . I don’t think there’s any one thing that would make a person do something like that. You just learn that you’re depending on them, they’re depending on you.”

 

Patterson would go on to serve in the Army for just over 26 years. To this day, he views his status as a Medal recipient as an important responsibility.

 

“One thing you learn is that you do not disgrace that Medal, in any way, shape, form or fashion,” he concluded last fall. “So, even as an E5 when I got it, I immediately quit going to the bars downtown. . . . I don’t do anything that would bring disrespect to it. That’s changed a lot of things I did, used to do, in my life.”

 

His words echo the sentiments of so many Medal of Honor recipients over the years.

 

“[Medal of Honor recipients wear] it for everyone who was there and particularly for those who didn’t come back,” Patterson told the Veterans History Project. “It is much harder to wear that ribbon than to earn it.”


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