Faces of Black Excellence History April 21, 2020 at 02:00 pm

Why there’s clamor for Major James Capers Jr. to get Medal of Honor for broken legs in Vietnam

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

Michael Eli Dokosi April 21, 2020 at 02:00 pm

April 21, 2020 at 02:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence, History

Major James Capers Jr. via MJC Ent

Born to a family of sharecroppers in South Carolina during the Jim Crow era on August 25, 1937, you might be fooled by Major James Capers Jr’s soft-spoken nature, but make no mistake, this is not a man to play with.

His heroism in war and self-sacrifice has led to him being awarded “the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and Combat V, three Purple Hearts, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, a Joint Service Commendation Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, three Good Conduct Ribbons, Battle Stars, Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Achievement Medal, CG Certificate of Merit, multiple letters of Merit, Appreciation, and Commendation”. Despite having medals some will never get in a life time, many people believe that Major Capers deserves a Medal of Honor for which he’s been nominated, but later downgraded.

Capers started simply enough, enlisting in the Marines at 18. As one of a few black men, Capers entered boot camp at Parris Island in 1953 electing to go into special operations. Being a Marine it meant joining Force Reconnaissance, small unit teams tasked with long-range surveillance and intelligence gathering with little support from the larger U.S. military.

He entered the service during a time of racial unrest, only 14 years after the Marine Corps had integrated in 1941.

The Marines selected Capers to become the face of their service for a recruiting campaign dubbed “Ask a Marine.” His photograph taken when he was recuperating from injuries in the Naval hospital graced national billboards and magazine pages in the 1970s inspiring a generation of minority Marines, according to the service.

In Vietnam, Capers was assigned with leading his team and because of his work, he received a battlefield commission from staff sergeant to second lieutenant. From this point on he was in command of Third Force Recon, also referred to as Team Broadminded (a name they gave themselves).

Working mostly at night, sometimes surviving on only a meal a day, the men would participate in multiple missions including Operation Deckhouse, an amphibious assault to clear the DMZ of Viet Cong Forces rescuing 16 Marines, a B-57 Recovery mission and the fierce battle of Phu Loc on a search and destroy patrol in an effort to locate an NVA regimental base.

It was during that last firefight in Phu Loc where Capers was gravely injured. With two broken legs and peppered with shrapnel from the blast of a Claymore mine, Capers battled a mental haze brought on by massive blood loss and a shot of morphine as he fought to free his men from the assault.

With his entire team wounded and their loyal service dog, King, killed in action, Capers ordered his Marines to evacuate on a small H-34 chopper. He continued the fight with his M-16 ordering the extraction helicopter to take his men away while he stayed behind to face certain death. But the men stayed and evacuated their leader too. He had five major campaigns in Vietnam.

“I figured it’s better to lose one man than to lose the whole team,” Capers later stated in an interview.

Capers who would become the first black Marine officer nominated for the Medal of Honor for the April 1967 mission in Phu Loc. When he was medically evacuated from Vietnam, Capers had led his team on 67 long-range reconnaissance missions, ranging from diving operations to recover fallen Marines to covert tasks personally approved by President Lyndon B. Johnson, including attempts to recover prisoners of war.

Capers participated in 50 classified missions, was wounded 19 times in battle. He was the first African-American to lead a Force Marine Recon team and the first African-American to also receive a battlefield commission. Together with his Broadminded team, they were routinely selected to go on the most dangerous and clandestine missions in Vietnam. 

Following Vietnam, Capers participated in many Cold War covert operations as a field agent in Eastern Europe and Africa. Details of these operations remain classified today. 

Photo courtesy of MJC Ent

Capers retired in 1978. After his career in the Marines, he spent years working in the telecommunications industry and helping run the nonprofit Gary Capers Foundation, aimed at helping disabled youth, named for his son, who was born blind and died of undiagnosed appendicitis at 49 in 2003. His wife of 50 years, Dottie also died in 2009.

In 2010, Major James Capers Jr. was one of only 14 members inducted into the inaugural class of U.S. Special Operations Command’s Commando Hall of Honor.

Filmmakers Ashley Cusato and Erich Recker did a documentary about his life and the brutal tour in Vietnam.

via connectingvets.radio.com

The Silver Star for his actions at Phu Loc came 43 years later, only after his nomination for the Medal of Honor was reviewed, declined and downgraded by the Marine Corps. He was not given a reason for the lesser award.

While he is happy for the Silver Star, Capers notes “the Medal of Honor would mean more – it would mean recognition,” not just for him “but for the men who escaped, severely injured on that day in Phu Loc.”

 It would also alleviate any concerns Capers had about whether he was given a fair shake because of the color of his skin.

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