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Medal of Honor: Clarence E. Sasser

Every weekday for 110 straight days we will feature a different living recipient of the Medal of Honor. These are the men who have received their nation's highest military honor. Brian is a board member of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. The words and photos are courtesy of Artisan Books, publishers of Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty by Peter Collier with photographs by Nick Del Calzo.

Clarence E. Sasser
Private First Class, U.S. Army Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division

When Clarence Sasser was drafted in 1967, he  assumed that he would be just another GI. After a battery of tests indicated he should be trained as a medical aidman, he was surprised that the Army thought he might have the ability to save lives.

By the fall of 1967, Sasser was in Vietnam with the Army's 9th Infantry Division. He didn't experience a heavy firefight until January 10, 1968. Early that morning, his company was flown out toward the Mekong Delta on a reconnaissance-in-force operation to check out reports of enemy forces in the area. At about 10:00 a.m., the dozen helicopters carrying the undermanned company of slightly more than one hundred soldiers swooped down onto a large rice paddy near where the Vietcong had already been sighted. As the formation descended, the U-shaped wooded area nearly enclosing the landing zone erupted with small arms, recoilless rifle, machine-gun, and rocket fire. The mission might have been aborted, but the lead helicopter was hit and crashed, so the others immediately followed to protect it.

With the shallow water of the rice paddy roiled by enemy fire, the Americans tried to get out of the helicopters as quickly as possible and head for the mounded levees that offered them their only cover. In the first few minutes of the engagement, more than thirty men went down. The air was already filled with screams of "Medic!" when Sasser scrambled out of his helicopter. Running across the open rice paddy, he didn't have time to set medical priorities; he could only "go to the one who was calling the loudest." He slithered through the muck to get from soldier to soldier, working on his belly because standing upright meant certain death. Bullets chopping the water would sometimes trace a swift path toward an American infantryman and hit him. Sasser couldn't keep up with the casualties.

As he picked up a wounded GI and dragged him to cover against the embankment of a dike, Sasser was hit by shrapnel from an exploding rocket. Although it didn't have the energy of a bullet, the red-hot metal fragment burned itself into his shoulder. He pulled it out himself, waiving off help from medics from the other platoons.

Rushing back to the rice paddy to aid more wounded, he was hit in both legs by machine-gun fire and knocked down. He used his arms to pull himself through the mud to help a wounded soldier calling out from a hundred yards away. Close by, he saw a group of GIs huddled together, disoriented by the heavy fire; he managed to talk them into action, getting them to crawl toward the protection of a dike where they could begin to fire back at the enemy. "I felt that if I could get the guys up and fighting," he said later, "we might all get out of there somehow."

By afternoon, the enemy began to pull its main force back but left enough fighters behind to keep the Americans pinned down. Although faint from blood loss and in agonizing pain, Sasser continued to treat the wounded. Finally, at 4:00 the next morning, eighteen hours after the battle had begun, the area was sufficiently pacified for U.S. helicopters to arrange an evacuation. American troops had suffered thirty-four dead and fifty-nine wounded.

It took several months of rehabilitation in Japan before Sasser could use his legs again. While recovering, he was called into the hospital commander's office and told that he was to receive the Medal of Honor. It was presented to him by President Richard Nixon at the White House on March 7, 1969.