Kien Phong Province, South Vietnam, 1968
If Not Now, When?
Jack H. Jacobs
First lieutenant, U.S. Army U.S. Army Element, U.S. Military Assistance Command
BORN: August 2, 1945 Brooklyn, New York
ENTERED SERVICE: Trenton, New Jersey
BRANCH: U.S. Army
DUTY: Vietnam War
CURRENT RESIDENCE: New Jersey
If Jack Jacobs wanted a challenge, he certainly had one in 1966. He had a bachelor's degree from Rutgers University, a wife and a daughter, and no money. He had been through ROTC, and his plan was to enter active duty to earn a regular paycheck, then attend law school when his three-year Army commitment was finished. He volunteered immediately for airborne duty — paratroopers earned extra pay for the hazardous duty.
A year later, Lieutenant Jacobs was in Vietnam as an adviser to a Vietnamese infantry battalion in the Mekong Delta. He had wanted to deploy with his unit, the 82nd Airborne Division, and when he asked the Army why he had been chosen for the frustrating job of adviser, he was told it was simply because he had a college degree.
On March 9, 1968, Jacobs was with the lead companies of his South Vietnamese battalion as they searched for the Vietcong. Suddenly, a large enemy force, hidden in bunkers only fifty yards away, opened fire with mortars, rifles, and machine guns. With no place to hide, many South Vietnamese soldiers were killed or wounded in the first few seconds.
A mortar round that landed just a few feet away sent shrapnel tearing through the top of Jacobs's head. Most of the bones in his face were broken, and he could see out of only one eye. He tried calling in air strikes, but the intense enemy ground fire drove off the U.S. fighters. Shortly afterward, the lead company commander was badly wounded, and the South Vietnamese troops began to panic. Jacobs assessed the situation and realized that if someone didn't act quickly, everyone would be killed. The words of Hillel, the great Jewish philosopher, jumped into his mind: "If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"
He assumed control of the unit, ordering a withdrawal from the exposed position to a defensive perimeter. He dragged a wounded American sergeant, riddled with chest and stomach wounds, to safety, then returned to the fire-swept battlefield to rescue others. Each time he returned, he had to drive off the Vietcong, and single-handedly killed three and wounded many others. Despite being weak from blood loss, he went back time and again, bringing to safety thirteen fellow soldiers before he tried to take a brief rest — and discovered he couldn't get up again.
During the helicopter ride to the field hospital, he lost consciousness several times. Days later at another hospital, doctors pieced his skull and face together. Though he would undergo more than a dozen surgical operations, he never regained his senses of taste and smell.
Back in the United States, Jacobs was assigned to Fort Benning, where he became the commander of an officer candidate company. About a year after the action, he received an order to report to Washington, and on October 9, 1969, at a ceremony at the White House, President Richard Nixon awarded him the Medal of Honor.
After completing graduate school at Rutgers University, where he earned an M.A. in international relations, Jacobs asked to return to Vietnam. The Army granted his request on the condition that he remain out of harm's way. When he returned to Vietnam in July 1972, though, he immediately got himself assigned to the Vietnamese Airborne Division in the thick of fighting in Quang Tri. He walked away unscathed when the helicopter taking him to his unit was shot down, but he was subsequently wounded again.
Ultimately, he retired as a colonel after twenty years on active duty—quite a bit longer than the three years he had originally planned.
Iwo Jima, Western Pacific, 1945
Hershel W. Williams
Corporal, U.S. Marine Corps 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Division
BORN: October 2nd, 1923 Quiet Dell, West Virginia
ENTERED SERVICE: West Virginia
BRANCH: U.S. Marine Corps
DUTY: World War II
CURRENT RESIDENCE: West Virginia
The first time the five-foot-six, 19-year-old Hershel "Woody" Williams tried to join the Marines, in the fall of 1942, he was too short. The second time he tried, a few months later, he wasn't: The Corps had relaxed its height requirements. He immediately enlisted. He was sent to the Pacific with the 3rd Marine Division and placed in a flamethrower/demolition unit.
Williams took part in the invasion of Guam, which seemed horrific — until he was sent to Iwo Jima the following year. The beach area in Guam was clear and relatively undefended, and the Marines could advance into the jungle. At Iwo, all the jungle cover had been blown away, and the beach became a slaughterhouse.
His company was supposed to hit the beach on February 20, 1945, but there were so many Marines stuck on the beachhead that there was no place for them. They finally landed the next day, even though the Marines were still backed up, unable to advance. The island's volcanic ash was so porous that it was impossible to dig foxholes or create cover, and the Americans, exposed to enemy fire, were taking huge casualties. Williams's unit had landed with six flamethrower men and had lost them all in two days without advancing more than fifty yards. Morale was plummeting.
On February 23, Williams suddenly heard Marines shouting and firing their weapons in the air. Looking up, he saw that the American flag had been raised on Mount Suribachi. Spurred on by the sight, his company surged forward and finally advanced, crossing the first airfield and assaulting the enemy.
The Japanese defenses were organized around pillboxes of reinforced concrete arranged in pods of three, connected by a system of tunnels. Acting Sergeant Williams saw the American tanks wallowing impotently in the soft volcanic sand. With covering fire from four riflemen, he strapped on a flamethrower and went after the pillboxes. Over the next four hours, he moved through intense enemy fire to assault one Japanese position after another. He climbed on top of one pillbox and stuck the nozzle of his flamethrower through the air vent, killing the soldiers inside and silencing the machine gun. When enemy soldiers from another pillbox fixed their bayonets and charged him, he killed them all with a burst of flame from his weapon. He repeatedly returned to his own lines to get new flamethrowers or pick up satchel charges, which he tossed into the pillboxes he had disabled. Finally, an opening in the Japanese lines was created, enabling the Marines to advance.
When Williams's company was taken off the line a week and a half later, only 17 of the 279 men who had hit the beach with the company had not been killed or wounded.
After the battle of Iwo Jima, Williams went back to Guam as part of the Marine force training for the invasion of Japan, which was unnecessary after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On October 5, 1945, he was ordered to Washington to receive the Medal of Honor. The moment President Harry Truman placed it around his neck, he resolved to consider himself the medal's caretaker for the Marines who didn't come home from Iwo Jima.
Hershel Williams later became active in his church as a lay minister. He served his fellow recipients and their loved ones as chaplain for many years. He is now chaplain emeritus of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
Excerpted from Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the
Call of Duty, 3rd Edition (Artisan Books). Copyright 2011. Text by
Peter Collier; Photographs by Nick Del Calzo.