Remembering a remarkable hero on Memorial Day

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.  

On a day of remarkable courage, 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.  He 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.  The battle may be mostly forgotten, but 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 more than 30 years ago as I underwent training in 1981, long after the Vietnam War had ended. The story has stayed with me ever since, though I’m not sure why.  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 — someone we could relate to — 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 he? With another Memorial Day approaching, it seemed a good time to find out.  Bobo grew up in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where his father worked in a factory for about 40 years. He was not a standout student or athlete, but he had what coaches often call “heart.”  His brother, Bill Bobo, now 69 and living outside Albany, recalled how heartbroken John Bobo was when the junior varsity football coach turned him down for the team because of his small stature.  He began weight training. “He was never going to let that happen to him again,” Bill 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 spread along a front more than a mile long, on an operation designed to draw out North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 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. The Marines faced a battalion-size unit of well-trained NVA soldiers.  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.  Riley heard rifle shots and turned to see that Braun and Bobo had been shot. Riley killed the NVA soldier. Bobo was killed, while Braun was seriously wounded but survived.  By nightfall, the company had lost 15 Marines; many more were injured. 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.

   Those with combat experience say it is nearly impossible to predict who will perform heroically in battle. Some people just rise to the occasion in ways it is hard for the rest of us to understand.  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

A 1966 family photo of 2nd Lt. John Paul Bobo, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in Vietnam in March 1967.

Jim Michaels   @jimmichaels USA TODAY
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