Harold Campbell, a Vietnam veteran from Williamsburg, shares his memories of rescuing Vietnamese refugees from a burning village. (Sangjib Min, Daily Press / September 15, 2011)
By Hugh Lessig, email@example.com | 757-247-7821
7:39 p.m. EDT, September 25, 2011
The U.S. military issues a variety of medals and commendations for courage under fire. The Soldier's Medal is different
It recognizes heroism not involving conflict with an armed enemy – the highest honor the Army can bestow on a soldier for valor in a non-combat situation. It might recognize someone who rushes to help a buddy whose Humvee has overturned, or who jumps into a lake to save a drowning child.
Or, if you're Harold Campbell of Williamsburg, it means helping rescue more than two dozen Vietnamese refugees from a burning village.
Campbell will receive the Soldier's Medal on Monday during a ceremony at Fort Eustis in Newport News – and yes, the recognition is a bit late. Misplaced documentation is probably to blame, but that has not lessened Campbell's appreciation of the honor or dulled his memory of the actions that led to it.
It was March 24, 1968.
Then-Lt. Col. Campbell and two fellow officers were relaxing on a patio roof that topped their three-story living quarters at Nha Trang airfield, about one-quarter of a mile from the South China Sea. From their perch, they could see a nearby refugee village sponsored by Catholic Charities, home to several hundred Vietnamese, many of them elderly men and women or young mothers with children.
The Tet Offensive had taken place several weeks earlier, and American forces were staging the first counteroffensive. All units remained on high alert.
Chatter signals trouble
It was not unusual, Campbell said, to hear chatter coming from the camp. But on this day, the chatter escalated into panicked screams punctuated by muffled explosions.
The camp – a collection of bamboo poles, packing crates, thatched material and woven matting – had caught fire.
Campbell and his two comrades – Lt. Col. Edward O'Donnell and Maj. Edward Brophy Jr. – ran down from their third-floor perch and crossed the narrow alley that separated their billets from the camp. The main entrance was already engulfed in flames, so the three men climbed over a barbed wire fence to get inside.
"We started our work where most of the families were, because we knew it would spread," Campbell said. "Because it was all very flammable, you would go into a building and the pieces would start to fall."
Clad in T-shirts and shorts, the men followed the sound of screams into burning structures, escorting people to safety. As Campbell moved from building to building, he encountered some people who seemed frozen by fear, but bound by their family ties.
"People were just huddled inside the building, and the flames were all around them," he said. "They were just prepared to die, but they did not abandon those kids."
Screams and smoke
With flames closing in, Campbell heard more screams from a central area of the compound.
"I went to where I thought it was, and I went into this building," he said. "I could still hear the screams and you could see the smoke starting to come through the thatching."
He opened an internal door and saw thick, white smoke. Then came an explosion, giving Campbell second-degree burns to his face and arms that would take some days to heal. But when the smoke cleared, he saw an older man and woman along with two or three kids.
"I got down low," he said, "and I got them."
After pulling those people to safety, Campbell knew it was time to get out.
"We didn't hear any more screams anyway," he said.
Campbell said he never thought about being a bystander that day.
"I think it has a lot to do with military training," he said. "You act. You put yourself on the other side of the question, and I would hope somebody would come and help me. You just do it. You don't think about it until later. I don't mean to sound heroic about that. It's just something that people do."
Campbell and the two officers were recommended for the Soldier's Medal, but Campbell never received it. The documentation was likely misplaced, he said, and it wasn't until many years later that he thought about it again. He reconnected with retired Col. Norman Paulson, an old friend who had recommended him for the medal.
When Campbell, who retired from the Army in 1981, mentioned that he hadn't received it, Paulson helped restart the process.
That led to what will surely be a satisfying ceremony on Monday at Fort Eustis. Campbell is very thankful for the medal, but admits to being a bit taken aback by the publicity. Campbell can't take credit for tipping off the media. The public affairs office at the Army post did that.
"It's a unique medal," he said, "but I'm not seeking recognition. I'd just as soon walk in that room and get that medal and leave. That would be fine with me."