December 1966 photo of Lt. John Paul Bobo, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in Vietnam in March 1967. / Family Photo
The battle over Hill 70 near the DMZ in Quang Tri Province in the Republic of Vietnam on March 30, 1967, was not strategically significant. But it produced feats of heroism on a remarkable scale.
Among the medals earned that bloody day were a Medal of Honor, the highest award for bravery, and four Navy Crosses, the second-highest decoration for bravery. There were other awards from that battle, and many acts of heroism on Hill 70 doubtless went unrecorded.
Perhaps the most extraordinary story was that of 2nd Lt. John Bobo, a 24-year-old weapons platoon commander, who was gravely injured when a mortar round severed his right leg below the knee. With a web belt serving as a tourniquet, he jammed the stump of his leg into the dirt to further staunch the bleeding. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Bobo refused medical evacuation, begging his men to prop him up against a tree so he could continue firing at the enemy with a shotgun. "It was just him, all by himself," said Jack Riley, then a Marine corporal on the hill with Bobo.
Bobo's story is known to generations of Marine second lieutenants going through training at Quantico, Va., where a mess hall and building are named in his honor. That's where I first heard the story as I underwent training in 1981.
Second lieutenants are in a vulnerable position. During war, "boot" lieutenants fresh out of school are acutely aware they will assume command of platoons whose Marines often have combat experience.
Bobo was something of a patron saint for second lieutenants. He seemed one of us, and yet his actions were almost beyond comprehension. It was a question on all our minds: How would we react if facing similar circumstances?
But who was John Bobo? With Memorial Day approaching, it seemed a good time to find out.
He grew up in Niagara Falls, N.Y. He was not a standout student or athlete, but he had what coaches often call "heart."
His brother, Bill Bobo, now 69, recalled how heartbroken John Bobo was when the junior varsity football coach turned him down because he was too small. So he began weight training. "He was never going to let that happen to him again," Bobo said.
In Vietnam, Bobo wasn't the gung-ho officer who was going to get his men killed in pursuit of a promotion. He was quiet, competent and cared deeply about his men.
In March 1967, Bobo's unit, Company I, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, was on an operation designed to draw out North Vietnamese Army units. It was late afternoon when the North Vietnamese attacked. Mortars began raining down on their positions. Then NVA soldiers used the thick elephant grass to maneuver into the position where Bobo and the company command post was located.
Bobo had moved forward in an effort to support his rocket teams who were engaging at close quarters with the enemy. He was single-handedly preventing the unit from being overrun.
Then a mortar round all but severed his right leg.
A Navy corpsman, Kenneth Braun, reached Bobo, placed a tourniquet on him, gave him some morphine and prepared to bring him to safety, according to an account in Leatherneck magazine in 2009. Bobo urged him to leave him there, but the corpsman began dragging him to safety.
Jack Riley, then a Marine corporal, heard rifle shots and turned to see that Braun and Bobo had been shot. Bobo was killed, and Braun was seriously wounded but survived.
By nightfall, the company had lost 15 Marines; many more were injured. But they had held off the NVA attack and delivered a devastating blow to the enemy. "There were enemy dead everywhere," said Richard "Butch" Neal, a lieutenant at the time and later assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.
Back in the United States, the story barely made a ripple.
"It was," Neal said, "just a lot of good Marines doing good things on a very bad day."
Michaels, a former Marine infantry officer, covers military issues for USA TODAY.
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Read the original story: Voices: Remembering a remarkable act of heroism