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 Marine First Lt. Barney Barnum, whose company was outnumbered 10 to 1 by North Vietnamese forces on Dec. 18, 1965, in Quang Tin Province, South Vietnam.
Barney Barnum’s Medal of Honor citation reads:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. When the company was suddenly pinned down by a hail of extremely accurate enemy fire and was quickly separated from the remainder of the battalion by over 500 meters of open and fire-swept ground, and casualties mounted rapidly.
“Lt. Barnum quickly made a hazardous reconnaissance of the area, seeking targets for his artillery. Finding the rifle company commander mortally wounded and the radio operator killed, he, with complete disregard for his safety, gave aid to the dying commander, then removed the radio from the dead operator and strapped it to himself.
“He immediately assumed command of the rifle company, and moving at once into the midst of the heavy fire, rallying and giving encouragement to all units, reorganized them to replace the loss of key personnel and led their attack on enemy positions from which deadly fire continued to come. His sound and swift decisions and his obvious calm served to stabilize the badly decimated units and his gallant example as he stood exposed repeatedly to point out targets served as an inspiration to all.
“Provided with two armed helicopters, he moved fearlessly through enemy fire to control the air attack against the firmly entrenched enemy while skillfully directing one platoon in a successful counterattack on the key enemy positions.
“Having thus cleared a small area, he requested and directed the landing of two transport helicopters for the evacuation of the dead and wounded. He then assisted in the mopping up and final seizure of the battalion’s objective.
“His gallant initiative and heroic conduct reflected great credit upon himself and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Service.”
Peter Collier, author of Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty, offers more detail of the battle:
“At close to 6 p.m., after nearly eight hours of continuous fighting, the battalion commander radioed Barnum that it would be impossible to mount a rescue for his cut-off Marines. Barnum knew that if he tried to hold out through the night, his dwindling force would be wiped out by morning, so he ordered the company engineers to blow a space in the heavy tree cover to allow two H-34 helicopters to land for the evacuation of the dead and wounded. Then he ordered the rest of his men to move out in fire team rushes. Perhaps because the maneuver was so unexpected, they were able to break through North Vietnamese lines, crossing 500 yards of fire-swept ground to rejoin the forward elements of his battalion before darkness.”
Then Collier describes the aftermath:
“Barnum was told two days later that the commanding general was recommending him for the Medal of Honor.
“He was presented the medal on Feb. 27, 1967, by Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze. But it would take months, even years, for the fragments of this day to come together in his memory. When they did, it was often only with the help of messages he occasionally received from the men he had commanded. ‘Somebody gave me your name,’ one Marine e-mailed him decades later. ‘I think you’re the lieutenant who fought beside me with a .45-caliber pistol and a 3.5 rocket launcher for a while back in ’65. If so, thanks for saving my life.’ Until this communication, Barnum hadn’t remembered the incident.
“First Lt. Barnum left Vietnam in February 1966. He worked as a military aide in Washington on the condition that he be allowed to pick his next assignment. When it came time to make the move, he chose Vietnam. He was the first man who received the Medal of Honor in Vietnam to return to action there.”
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