Marine Squad Leader Who Died in Vietnam Awarded Navy Cross

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller presents the Navy Cross to Neily Esposito, daughter of Cpl. Stephen E. Austin, in Alexandria, Va., July 21, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Olivia Ortiz)
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller presents the Navy Cross to Neily Esposito, daughter of Cpl. Stephen E. Austin, in Alexandria, Va., July 21, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Olivia Ortiz)

A Marine corporal credited with single-handedly destroying an enemy bunker in Vietnam was posthumously awarded his service's second-highest valor award five decades after he died on the battlefield.

The family of Cpl. Stephen Austin, a squad leader with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Marines, was presented with the Navy Cross during a ceremony in Alexandria, Virginia, on Saturday. The award was presented by Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Corps' top officer.

"[Austin] demonstrated 'Semper Fidelis' through the very end," Neller tweeted following the event. "Proud to wear the same cloth as American heroes like Cpl Austin."

Austin's comrades spent years collecting testimonies so they could see the squad leader recognized for his heroism. The Marines were on patrol on June 8, 1968, when they began taking heavy enemy fire from a nearby bunker, according to Austin's Navy Cross citation.

"Austin convinced his platoon leader not to pull their unit back in order to call in an airstrike," the citation states. "He then brilliantly maneuvered his squad to an area from which they could provide effective covering fire."

Determined to end the threat -- and with complete disregard for his own safety -- Austin "single-handedly assaulted the bunker and destroyed it with a grenade," the citation states.

He was mortally wounded in the attack, but his actions are credited with turning the tide of the engagement, which allowed the Marines to eliminate the enemy in the village.

It's a story his fellow Marines spent years collecting, the Fresno Bee reported. Some died before seeing their friend honored. Others were able to attend their unit's 50th reunion banquet this weekend, where Neller present the valor award to Neily Esposito, the daughter Austin didn't know he had, according to the Bee.

"All of us have survivor's guilt," Grady Birdsong, one of the Marines who collected testimonies, told the paper. "I got to live, and I got to come home. It was my duty to tell their story. … That was the least I was able to do for these men, especially the ones we lost like Stephen."

A similar effort was made by Marines who served under retired Marine Sgt. Maj. John Canley, who was a company gunnery sergeant during the 1968 battle to retake Hue City. The Marines' 15-year effort paid off. Canley received a call from President Donald Trump this month informing him he'd be presented with the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for heroism.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ginaaharkins.

Show Full Article