How Milton Lee Olive III fell on an enemy grenade to save comrades in battle

Theodora Aidoo Jun 2, 2020 at 04:00pm

June 02, 2020 at 04:00 pm | History, Opinions & Features

Theodora Aidoo

Theodora Aidoo | Staff Writer

June 02, 2020 at 04:00 pm | History, Opinions & Features

Pic Credit: U.S. Army

Milton Lee Olive III’s selfless act as a young combat veteran made him a battlefield legend. He was a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam Pfc. Olive threw his body on a grenade saving four comrades in the process.

At the age of 19, Olive was already a hardened combat veteran. He was called “Skipper.” He was born on November 7, 1946, in Chicago, Illinois. Unfortunately, his mother died four hours after he was born.

Olive moved to Lexington, Mississippi, where he spent his younger years with his grandmother. In January 1964, during Olive’s second year of high school, the 24th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing the right to vote without paying poll taxes that had been used to suppress the black vote in the South.

According to reports, Olive was one of the 3,000 students participating in “Mississippi Freedom Schools,” which taught black students about their rights and their potential to bring change at the polls. When the school year ended in 1964, Olive became a volunteer in The Mississippi Summer Project to register black voters.

As violence intensified, Olive’s grandmother sent him back to Chicago. The then 17-year-old learned that some of his credits earned in Mississippi didn’t count, and he would have to repeat his sophomore year.

Dispirited, he left school to find a job, but his search wasn’t fruitful. On his 18th birthday, Olive enlisted in the Army. A letter he wrote home read: “You said I was crazy for joining up. Well, I’ve gone you one better. I’m now an official U.S. Army Paratrooper.”

Olive was part of the U.S. Army‘s 173rd Airborne Brigade. They were the first major combat unit to arrive in Vietnam in May 1963. As the Army’s only action-ready unit in the Pacific at that time, the “Sky Soldiers” of the 173rd soon encountered the enemy firsthand.

Honoring Vietnam Veteran Milton L. Olive III - VAntage Point
Pic Credit: blogs.va.gov

The soldiers struggled to secure and keep the 60-square-mile area known as War Zone D or the “Iron Triangle”. At different times, the enemy fired. Olive, by all accounts a good-humoured, hardworking soldier, was constantly upfront, exposing himself to the enemy fire, according to American Military History.

Olive and four others, including his platoon commander, were reportedly pursuing one band of Viet Cong through the tangled growth when suddenly, one of the enemies turned and threw a hand grenade into the middle of the platoon. Olive demonstrated his selfless bravery when he sacrificed his life by falling on the grenade to save his fellow infantrymen during a patrol in Phu Cuong, Vietnam on October 22, 1965.

“It was the most incredible display of selfless bravery I ever witnessed,” Texan Jimmy Stanford, a lieutenant in the 173rd Airborne Brigade Stanford and one of the four men Olive saved, said later.

“A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about him,” Stanford said. “Milton Olive changed me. I made a vow never to forget him.”

Milton Lee Olive III parents receive his Medal of Honor from President Lyndon Johnson
“President Lyndon Johnson presents Medal of Honor, posthumously, to parents of
PFC Milton L. Olive, III for his act of gallantry in Vietnam – Pic credit: Department of Defense

Olive III was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon B. Johnson on April 21, 1966, becoming the first black recipient of the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War.

Olive was interred in the West Grove Cemetery in Lexington, Mississippi. His gravestone was the first to display the Medal of Honor (MOH) medallion designed by NCA’s Advisory Committee on Cemeteries and Memorials for those recipients buried in private cemeteries.

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