Fifty-six meritorious Bronze Stars were awarded Monday to members of an Army military police company that took on infantry missions in Vietnam, while the service began a massive records search going back to World War II to find others who may have missed out on honors they rated.
"Hollywood couldn't make this up," Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, said of the service of the "Bushwhackers" of Bravo Company, 720th Military Police Battalion, 18th Military Police Brigade, which was the first MP unit in U.S. armed forces history to engage in a three-year infantry counterinsurgency mission from 1967 to 70.
"This day has been a long time coming," said Latta, who pressed the Army to make awards to Bravo Company and presided over a crowded presentation ceremony on the House side of the U.S. Capitol for the 35 recipients in attendance.
In his remarks, and in a brief interview with Military.com, Maj. Gen. Thomas Drew, commander of the Army's Human Resources Command, said that, in addition to the awards to Bravo Company, the Army is conducting a major review and records search to determine whether other troops may have missed out on awards and citations.
In the field, paperwork could get lost or commanders may not have found time to submit the required forms, Drew said. Recently, Human Resources Command began screening more than a million WWII records, "and from that we've upgraded some awards," Drew said. "It's an ongoing thing."
Once the WWII search is complete, the plan is to move on to the Korean War and then possibly later conflicts. "We're digitizing all of it online" for possible storage in the Library of Congress, Drew said. "That's what we owe our citizen soldiers."
For the citizen soldiers of Bravo Company, taking on the infantry mission of deterring enemy sappers from attacking Long Binh Post, the largest U.S. logistical base in Vietnam northeast of Saigon, was an exercise in adaptability, said then-Capt. Daryl Solomonson, the company commander.
"I didn't have a problem with troops complaining. They accepted the mission," which was called Operation Stabilize, and they accepted the on-the-job training in the infantry basics of combat patrolling, setting up ambushes, and perimeter defense, Solomonson said.
He had gone through infantry training back in the States, Solomonson said, and he relied on the expertise of his noncommissioned officers. But "it was a very difficult process" in transforming a military police unit into a cohesive infantry company.
"Guys would come in, they would go out and learn on the job. We had to do a lot of improvising. We just trained everybody as they came in," he said.
"We had our own navy as well," said former Spc. 5 Robert Bogison, whose book "Up Close & Personal: In-Country, Chieu Hoi, Vietnam 1969-1970" influenced Latta to press the case for awards to Bravo Company. (Chieu Hoi, or "open arms," was the term used for the program to encourage the enemy to defect.)
"They paired us up with some of the 458th transportation people" to drive the boat, and "we received on-the-job training as gunners and as coxswains" on PBRs, or "Patrol Boats, Riverine," the type of craft seen in the movie "Apocalypse Now," Bogison said. For places the PBRs could not go, the Bravo Company troops also had Boston whalers driven by 25-horsepower Johnson outboards. "It was a screwy setup. It was insane, but it worked," Bogison said.
The infantry duty took its inevitable toll on the Bravo Company troops, who were awarded a total of 24 Purple Heart medals -- 13 of them for troops killed in action, said former Spc. 4 Steven Aurelio in his remarks at the House awards event.
Aurelio and other former Bravo Company members said they initially had hoped for the award of the Combat Infantryman Badge, or CIB, but were told by the Army that they lacked the 11B infantry military occupational specialty to be eligible. The service also ruled out the Combat Action Badge, which was created in September 2001.
"All of us started writing letters. We got one hit, one response, and it was Congressman Latta," who promised to help, Aurelio said. "The Army got back to us and said, 'We're offering the Bronze Star for meritorious service. Will you accept it?' We said 'yes.'"
"It's official recognition of who we were and what we did," Aurelio said. Many of the surviving Bravo Company members "didn't quite receive a hurrah when they came home and this will probably be a last hurrah for many," he said of the presentation ceremony.
The award of 56 meritorious Bronze Stars at one ceremony was in line with what Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff during World War II, intended the medal to be when he recommended its establishment to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, said Doug Sterner, a combat engineer veteran of two tours in Vietnam and a Military Times contributing editor who maintains the Hall of Valor, the largest public database of American military award citations.
In a letter to Roosevelt urging him to issue an executive order creating the Bronze Star, Marshall wrote: "Make the award immediately at the time, so as to sustain or stimulate morale" for ground combat troops. "Permit these young men who are suffering the hardships and casualties to enjoy their ribbons, which mean so much to them, while in uniform."
Marshall would later complain that not enough Bronze Stars were being awarded, said Sterner, who applauded the Army's decision to award meritorious Bronze Stars to the Bravo Company military police unit.
"I think this is a wonderful move by the Army," Sterner said. "It is never too late to recognize those who have served. It's for once the military awards system doing something right. I'm glad they're getting it."
The Bronze Stars awarded to Bravo Company were all for meritorious service, but Bronze Stars can also be awarded with a combat "V" device, meaning that the actions rating the medal were performed during combat.
At the ceremony Monday, the Bravo Company members paid tribute to the late Thomas Watson, one of the leaders in the group's efforts to press for awards.
Watson had already received a Bronze Star with combat "V" for his actions during Operation Stabilize, and the citation for his medal was emblematic of the types of infantry engagements undertaken by the military police of the unit.
"Corporal Watson distinguished himself by valorous actions on 23 February 1969 as a member of an ambush squad outside the southern perimeter of Long Binh Post," the citation said. "When a large enemy force was seen attempting to cross a river just below the patrol's location, Corporal Watson aided his squad leader in calling in effective mortar, artillery and helicopter gun ship fire."
"Despite an intense hostile mortar and small arms barrage, he continued to direct counterfire until his position was about to be overrun. As his comrades withdrew, he remained behind to cover them with machine gun fire and hand grenades, enabling them to accomplish the withdrawal without suffering any casualties," the citation said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.