During 2019, Freedoms Foundation and the Friends of the Medal of Honor Grove are paying tribute to the living recipients of the Medal of Honor on the anniversary of the actions for which they earned the nation’s highest award for valor. The series continues with a look at April 25, 1968, and the actions of First Lt. James M. Sprayberry, an executive officer in the 1st Cavalry Division whose company was ambushed by a large North Vietnamese force in the A Shau Valley in South Vietnam.
James M. Sprayberry’s Medal of Honor citation reads:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Capt. Sprayberry, Armor, U.S. Army, distinguished himself by exceptional bravery while serving as executive officer of Company D.
“His company commander and a great number of the men were wounded and separated from the main body of the company. A daylight attempt to rescue them was driven back by the well-entrenched enemy’s heavy fire.
“Capt. Sprayberry then organized and led a volunteer night patrol to eliminate the intervening enemy bunkers and to relieve the surrounded element. The patrol soon began receiving enemy machinegun fire. Capt. Sprayberry quickly moved the men to protective cover and without regard for his own safety, crawled within close range of the bunker from which the fire was coming. He silenced the machinegun with a hand grenade.
“Identifying several one-man enemy positions nearby, Capt. Sprayberry immediately attacked them with the rest of his grenades. He crawled back for more grenades and when two grenades were thrown at his men from a position to the front, Capt. Sprayberry, without hesitation, again exposed himself and charged the enemy-held bunker killing its occupants with a grenade. Placing two men to cover his advance, he crawled forward and neutralized three more bunkers with grenades.
“Immediately thereafter, Capt. Sprayberry was surprised by an enemy soldier who charged from a concealed position. He killed the soldier with his pistol and with continuing disregard for the danger neutralized another enemy emplacement.
“Capt. Sprayberry then established radio contact with the isolated men, directing them toward his position. When the two elements made contact he organized his men into litter parties to evacuate the wounded. As the evacuation was nearing completion, he observed an enemy machinegun position which he silenced with a grenade.
“Capt. Sprayberry returned to the rescue party, established security, and moved to friendly lines with the wounded. This rescue operation, which lasted approximately seven and a half hours, saved the lives of many of his fellow soldiers. Capt. Sprayberry personally killed 12 enemy soldiers, eliminated two machineguns, and destroyed numerous enemy bunkers.
“Capt. Sprayberry’s indomitable spirit and gallant action at great personal risk to his life are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.”
Peter Collier picks up the story in Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty:
“Sprayberry … felt that his mission was not yet complete. He had been unable to bring out the bodies of three Americans killed in the action. The next day the company tried again, but enemy fire was too heavy. When the weather cleared, a helicopter crew volunteered to try to locate the bodies, but the helicopter was immediately shot down, and the three-man crew was killed. Now he would have to leave the bodies of six Americans behind.
“Sprayberry was back home in 1969 with orders to leave the military when he walked into an antiwar demonstration at Fort Lewis. He was so angered by what he saw that he decided to make the Army a career. He was awarded the Medal by President Richard Nixon at the White House on Oct. 9, 1969, and retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel in 1988.
“He went back home to Alabama to run the family farm, yet he continued to regard finding the remains of those six Americans in the A Shau Valley as unfinished business. Over the years, he worked with a team that included a former medic and a forensic archaeologist to solve the puzzle of the exact whereabouts of the bodies left behind nearly 40 years earlier. In 2006, Sprayberry traveled to Vietnam to continue the search.”
In 2016, Sprayberry talked about his return to Vietnam to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency:
“Soft-spoken, humble and wearing his Medal of Honor around his neck, Sprayberry introduced himself simply as a retired farmer from Alabama. …
“Sprayberry had many complimentary things to say about the Vietnamese people, after a return trip to Vietnam several years ago. He respects and admires them greatly for the hard work they have done to get where they are today. He is proud of their accomplishments. …
“While in Vietnam, he met a North Vietnamese Army colonel by the name of Phoung, who served in the A Shau Valley for five years. Sprayberry felt extremely honored to be invited to Phuong’s house to meet his family, where the two former adversaries joked about shooting at each other during the war.
‘The Vietnamese are now very accepting of Americans,’ said Sprayberry. ‘They are curious and very forgiving.’ …
“Today, Sprayberry remains an advocate for eight fellow soldiers still missing from that battle in the A Shau Valley, as well as two other Medal of Honor recipients that went missing during the Vietnam War.”
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