BY DUANE ALLEN VACHON, PH.D. After writing almost 300 articles honoring America’s bravest, Medal of Honor recipients, there are a few characteristics I find they all share. One of them is integrity. Websters might define it differently, I think integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching, even when it’s not the easiest thing to do. Gary Lee Littrell has demonstrated what integrity is. Maybe if some of the politicians who were running our country when Littrell was showing his integrity in Kontum Province, the outcome in Vietnam might have been different.
Gary Lee Littrell (born October 26, 1944) is a retired United States Army Command Sergeant Major who, while a Sergeant First Class serving as an advisor to Army of the Republic of Vietnam‘s Ranger units during the Vietnam War, acted with extraordinary courage during a four day siege on his battalion — for which he received the Medal of Honor.
Gary Littrell was nine years old when his uncle took him to Fort Campbell to watch the 101st Airborne Division make parachute jumps. He always remembered watching the men floating down and saying to himself, someday I’ll be doing that. In 1961, on his seventeenth birthday, he joined the Army—once the recruiter guaranteed that he could go to jump school.
After graduating from jump school, Littrell was assigned to the 503rd Regiment, which was reorganized as the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). This brigade was stationed on Okinawa. His next assignment was to the 82nd Airborne Division. He then attended Ranger School, where he did well enough to be made an instructor. During his two years there, the “war stories” he heard from returning Vietnam veterans whetted his appetite for combat, so in 1969 he volunteered to go to the war zone. He learned to speak Vietnamese at the Army Language Institute at Fort Bliss and became an advisor to the 23rd South Vietnamese Ranger Battalion, whose dedication and bravery impressed him.
In the early spring of 1970, Littrell was one of four American advisors assisting the 23rd Battalion of the South Vietnamese Army as it looked for North Vietnamese Army units that had been harassing U.S. Special Forces camps in Kontum Province. On April 4, after 473 South Vietnamese Rangers ran into a concentration of approximately five thousand enemy troops, they established a defensive perimeter on a hill against a ferocious mortar attack. The battalion commander and one of the American advisors were killed in the first day of the fighting. Then two other advisors were wounded, leaving Sergeant Littrell in command.
Over the next four days, Littrell exhorted the South Vietnamese troops not to give up, despite their heavy losses. Moving along the defensive perimeter, he distributed ammunition and tried to help the wounded. Repeatedly abandoning positions of relative safety, he continually called in air support and artillery fire on the advancing enemy. At times he directed the American air strikes to within a few yards of his own position.
On April 8, 1970, Littrell’s commanding officer radioed him to attempt a retreat. Littrell moved out with what was left of the battalion. With helicopter gunships guarding his flanks, Air Force fighters clearing a corridor to his front, and by fighting off constant enemy ambushes, he moved the men five miles to link up with “friendlies.” Of the South Vietnamese Rangers who had begun the battle, forty-one walking wounded came out—but the enemy had been virtually annihilated.
Littrell was ordered home a few months later. At his going-away party, his commanding officer told him that he had been recommended for the Medal of Honor, but nothing happened and he soon forgot about it. Three and a half years later, he was serving with the 101st Division when he was informed that he was to receive the medal. President Richard Nixon made the presentation at the White House on October 15, 1973.
Command Sergeant Major Littrell retired from the Army ten years later. After retirement, Littrell served for many years with the Veterans Administration. In recent years, he has been very active with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, serving as its president for two consecutive terms.
The following is a portion of an article written by a student reporter, recently published in The Daily Beacon the campus newspaper serving the University of Tennessee:
Standing in the lobby of the Knoxville Museum of Art for the Medal of Honor Convention’s meet-and-greet event last Thursday evening, I couldn’t help but feel terribly, glaringly out of place.
Before beginning this column, I feel an important disclaimer must be made—I am not exactly what one might label “patriotic.” I harbor more doubts and cynicisms about the current status of America and the principles our country supposedly stands for—liberty and justice for all, for instance—than there are stars and stripes on the flag.
So why, then, had I volunteered to cover the convention, an occasion that landed me squarely in the center of a room brimming with more impassioned patriotism than I had heretofore experienced? Certainly I would be identified as a defector to the belief in America’s moral uprightness; perhaps an alarm would sound when it was discovered that a socialist sympathizer stood in their midst.
The reason I had answered Nick Geidner’s plea for writers and thus stopped by the museum (on my way to hear Jackson Katz speak about the need for male feminists, no less) was not simply because I have a knack for saying “yes” to requests like this, though that may account for part of it. More likely I had agreed because, cynicisms aside, I still find myself quite intrigued by the notion of the American spirit and the qualities that comprise our collective consciousness. In my search for answers, I was curious to hear the opinion of these undisputed national heroes, the Medal of Honor recipients. How do these figures, who represent so much more than their individual stories alone, feel about the current and future status of America?
And so, armed with my floral notebook and determined not to care if I was the only person in the room with Marx’s Manifesto on their bookshelf, I set forth.
After a few minutes of idle deliberation (read: standing frozen and wide-eyed by the drink table), I saw a man with a telltale blue ribbon round his neck excuse himself from a group conversation. Swallowing my nerves alongside my lemonade and seizing my chance, I stuck out my hand.
Soon, I found myself engaged in conversation with Gary Lee Littrell, a retired command sergeant major who was awarded the Medal of Honor for “sustained extraordinary courage and selflessness,” according to the official citation, in Vietnam. Serving as a Light Weapons Infantry Advisor, Littrell responded dauntlessly when his battalion was under extreme mortar attack and, over the course of four days, kept his men inspired, directed artillery and air support, cared for the wounded, and even shouted encouragement to the Vietnamese in their own language, among other acts.
Sitting with him Thursday, it was clear to me why Littrell was celebrated as a source of inspiration to his men. His elocution was strong and powerful; oftentimes, it felt like he was delivering a speech rather than answering the question of a student reporter. I’m convinced he could pass for Uncle Sam himself.
“The word ‘hero’ is widely misused,” he answered emphatically when asked to define the title. “I always say, ‘Don’t put Gary Littrell and hero in the same sentence.’ I’m proud to be a warrior.”
What happened next is something I’m still trying to make sense of.
“A man’s word is a man’s mind,” Littrell declared. “Honesty above all. When people say the name ‘Live,” let it be synonymous with honesty and integrity. Would you like that?”
“Well, yes, I always strive to be honest,” I answered lamely.
“You’re going to get married one day.”
“You’re going to get married,” he nearly commanded. “And when you do, you’re going to remember me and make honesty one of your marriage pledges. You’ll do it because you’ll see this and remember my name.”
“Yes sir,” I squeaked as he simultaneously slid something small and cold into my hand.
I find out from a surprised Mike Wiseman that the gift Littrell had handed me was a commemorative coin bearing his name, something Wiseman assured me didn’t happen often.
“You must have said something he liked,” Wiseman suggested.
I’m still not sure what I, an expatriate-hopeful after graduation, could have said to positively impress Littrell, nor do I feel much closer to understanding the American dream. But at least I had the experience of seizing a new opportunity and getting to publish my opinion of it—and that, I suppose, is about American as it gets.
LITTRELL, GARY LEE
Rank and organization: Sergeant First Class, U.S. Army, Advisory Team 21, 11 Corps Advisory Group. Place and date: Kontum province, Republic of Vietnam, 4-8 April 1970. Entered service at: Los Angeles, Calif.Born: 26 October 1944, Henderson, Ky.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Sfc. Littrell, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Advisory Team 21, distinguished himself while serving as a Light Weapons Infantry Advisor with the 23d Battalion, 2d Ranger Group, Republic of Vietnam Army, near Dak Seang. After establishing a defensive perimeter on a hill on April 4, the battalion was subjected to an intense enemy mortar attack which killed the Vietnamese commander, 1 advisor, and seriously wounded all the advisors except Sfc. Littrell. During the ensuing 4 days, Sfc Littrell exhibited near superhuman endurance as he single-handedly bolstered the besieged battalion. Repeatedly abandoning positions of relative safety, he directed artillery and air support by day and marked the unit’s location by night, despite the heavy, concentrated enemy fire. His dauntless will instilled in the men of the 23d Battalion a deep desire to resist. Assault after assault was repulsed as the battalion responded to the extraordinary leadership and personal example exhibited by Sfc. Littrell as he continuously moved to those points most seriously threatened by the enemy, redistributed ammunition, strengthened faltering defenses, cared for the wounded and shouted encouragement to the Vietnamese in their own language. When the beleaguered battalion was finally ordered to withdraw, numerous ambushes were encountered. Sfc. Littrell repeatedly prevented widespread disorder by directing air strikes to within 50 meters of their position. Through his indomitable courage and complete disregard for his safety, he averted excessive loss of life and injury to the members of the battalion. The sustained extraordinary courage and selflessness displayed by Sfc. Littrell over an extended period of time were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit on him and the U.S. Army.
The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes they are written about.
If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.