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Beyond the call of duty

Since the Civil War more than 39 million men and women have answered the call to serve. Of those, 3,440 served with such uncommon valor and and extraordinary courage that they were presented with the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award. Author Peter Collier and photographer Nick Del Calzo honor those veterans as they recount their stories in “Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor
/ Source: TODAY

Since the Civil War more than 39 million men and women have answered the call to serve. Of those, 3,440 served with such uncommon valor and and extraordinary courage that they were presented with the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award. Author Peter Collier and photographer Nick Del Calzo honor those veterans as they recount their stories in “Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty.” Here's an excerpt:


Ennobled by Example

I owe not only respect and gratitude but my life to a Medal of Honor recipient. After I was shot down and captured during the Vietnam War and had spent some time in a hospital, where my condition did not particularly improve, I asked to be transferred to a prison camp where other Americans were being held. My North Vietnamese captors moved me to a camp called “the Plantation.”

To my great relief, I was placed in a cell in a building with two other prisoners, both Air Force majors, George “Bud” Day, who is profiled in this book, and Norris Overly. I could have asked for no better companions. There has never been a doubt in my mind that Bud Day and Norris Overly saved my life.

Bud and Norris later told me that their first impression of me, emaciated, bug-eyed, and bright with fever, was of a man at the threshold of death. They thought the Vietnamese expected me to die and had placed me in their care to escape the blame when I failed to recover.

Bud himself had been seriously injured when he ejected from his aircraft. Like me, he had broken his right arm in three places and had torn the ligaments in his knee. After his capture, he had attempted an escape to the south, and had nearly reached an American airfield when he was recaptured. He was brutally tortured for his efforts, and for subsequently resisting his captors’ every entreaty for information.

First held in prison in Vinh before making the 150-mile trip north to Hanoi, Bud had experienced early the full measure of the mistreatment that would be his fate for nearly six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. His captors had looped rope around his shoulders, tightened it until his shoulders were nearly touching, and then hung him by the arms from the rafter of the torture room, tearing his shoulders apart. Left in this condition for hours, Bud never acceded to the Vietnamese demands for military information. They had to refracture his broken right arm and threaten to break the other before Bud gave them anything at all.

Bud was a tough man, a fierce resister, whose example was an inspiration to every man who served with him. For his heroic escape attempt, he received the Medal of Honor.

Bud and I were roommates for about three months in prison. When the Vietnamese observed that I could get around on crutches, they moved Bud to another cell. I cannot adequately describe how sorry I was to part company with my friend and inspiration. Up until then, I don’t believe I had ever relied on any other person for emotional and physical support to the extent I had relied on Bud.

You will read about Bud in this book, and about Rear Admiral James Stockdale, our legendary senior ranking officer in North Vietnam’s prison camps. As a resistance leader, Jim had few peers. He was a constant inspiration to the men under his command. Many of his Vietnamese captors hated him for his fierce and unyielding spirit. One, whom we had nicknamed the Rabbit, hated him the most.

One day, the Rabbit ordered Jim cleaned up so that he could be filmed for a propaganda movie in which he would play a visiting American businessman. He was given a razor to shave. Jim used it to hack off his hair, severely cutting his scalp in the process and spoiling his appearance, in the hope that this would render him unsuitable for his enemies’ purpose.

But the Rabbit was not so easily dissuaded. He left to find a hat to place on Jim’s bleeding head. In the intervening moments, Jim picked up a wooden stool and repeatedly bashed his face with it. Disfigured, Jim succeeded in frustrating the Rabbit’s plans for him that evening.

As his Medal of Honor citation reads, Rear Admiral Stockdale resolved to make himself a symbol of resistance regardless of personal sacrifice. He deliberately inflicted a near-mortal wound to his person in order to convince his captors of his willingness to give up his life rather than capitulate. He was subsequently discovered and revived by the North Vietnamese who, convinced of his indomitable spirit, abated in their employment of excessive harassment and torture toward all of the Prisoners of War. By his heroic action, at great peril to himself, he earned the everlasting gratitude of his fellow prisoners and of his country.

In the eyes of those of us he commanded in the camps, Jim Stockdale earned his Medal of Honor citation a dozen times over.

You will not read about Lance Sijan in this book. He won the Medal of Honor posthumously and is not included in this collection of tributes to the living Medal of Honor recipients. But all Americans should know his story.

Of all the many legends of heroic devotion to duty that I had come, in Vietnam’s prisoner of war camps, to know as real, and to seek strength and solace from, none was more inspiring than the story of Lance Sijan. I never knew him, but I wish I had. I wish I had one moment to tell him how much I admired him, how indebted I was to him for showing me, for showing all of us, our duty-for showing us how to be free.

He was gone before I heard of him. But my fellow prisoners Bob Craner and Guy Gruters had lived with Lance for a time, and Bob had told me his story very early in our friendship. Air Force Captain Lance Sijan was shot down near Vinh on November 9, 1967.

For a day and a half, he lay semiconscious on the ground, grievously injured, with a compound fracture of his left leg, a brain concussion, and a fractured skull. He made radio contact with rescue aircraft, but they were unable to locate him in the dense jungle. On November 11, they abandoned the search.

Crawling on the jungle floor at night, Lance fell into a sinkhole, further injuring himself. For six weeks he evaded capture. On Christmas Day, starved, racked with pain, he passed out on a dirt road, where a few hours later the North Vietnamese found him. Thus began the most inspiring POW story of the war, a story of one man’s fearless fidelity to our Code of Conduct. To Lance Sijan, the Code was not an abstract ideal, but the supreme purpose of his life.

The Code is a straightforward document. Its simply worded assertions might strike cynics as posturing, a simplistic and chauvinistic relic of a time when Americans carried with them to war a conceit that they were stronger, better, and more virtuous than any enemy they would face. In truth, few prisoners could claim that they never came close to violating one or more of its principles. Many of us were terrorized into failure at one time or another.

But Captain Sijan wasn’t. He obeyed the Code to the letter.

A short time after he was captured, he overpowered an armed guard and managed to escape, taking the guard’s rifle with him. Recaptured several hours later, he was tortured as punishment for his escape attempt and for military information. He refused to provide his captors anything beyond what the Code allowed. By the time he reached Hanoi, he was close to death.

Over six feet tall, he weighed less than a hundred pounds when he was placed in a cell with Bob Craner and Guy Gruters. He lived there barely a month. In and out of consciousness, often delirious, he would push on the walls of his cell and scratch on the floor, searching vainly for a way out. When he was lucid and not consumed with pain, he would quiz his cellmates about the camp’s security and talk with them about escaping again.

Interrogated several times, he refused to say anything. He was savagely beaten for his silence, kicked repeatedly and struck with a bamboo club. Bob and Guy heard him scream profanities at his tormentors, and then, after he had endured hours of torture, they heard him say in a weak voice: “Don’t you understand? I’m not going to tell you anything. I can’t talk to you. It’s against the Code.”

Bob and Guy tried to comfort him during his last hours. Working in shifts timed to the tolling of a nearby church bell, they cradled his head in their laps, talked quietly to him of his courage and faith, told him to hang on. Occasionally he shook off his delirium to joke with his cellmates about his circumstances.

Near the end, the guards came for him. Lance knew they were taking him away to die. As they placed him on a stretcher, he said to his friends, “It’s over... it’s over.” He called to his father for help as the guards carried him away.

A few days later, a prison guard told Bob Craner what he already knew, that his friend was dead. And Bob, a good and wise man, resolved to share with any prisoner he could reach the legend of Lance Sijan so that all of us could draw strength from the example of a man who would not yield no matter how terrible the consequences. A few weeks later, when I was moved into the cell next to Bob’s, he told me the story of Lance Sijan: a free man from a free country, who kept his dignity to the last moment of his life.

As you read in these pages about Bud, Jim, and Lance, and Leo Thorsness and Jon Cavaiani, who were in prison with us, and about my friends Bob Kerrey and Dan Inouye, and all the other heroes whose extraordinary service to America is memorialized in this book, you will be awed, as I am, not only by their courage and character, but by the country that produced such men and that was ennobled by the example they set for the rest of us.



BORN: August 2, 1945, Brooklyn, New York

ENTERED SERVICE: Trenton, New Jersey


DUTY: Vietnam War


Kien Phong Province, South Vietnam, 1968

If Not Now, When?


Captain, U.S. Army U.S. Army Element, U.S. Military Assistance Command

If Jack Jacobs wanted a challenge, he certainly had one in 1966. He had a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University, a wife and a daughter, and no money. He had been through ROTC, and his plan was to enter active duty to earn a regular paycheck, then attend law school when his three-year Army commitment was finished. He volunteered immediately for airborne duty-paratroopers earned extra pay for the hazardous duty.

A year later, Lieutenant Jacobs was in Vietnam as an adviser to a Vietnamese infantry battalion in the Mekong Delta. He had wanted to deploy with his unit, the 82nd Airborne Division, and when he asked the Army why he had been chosen for the frustrating job of adviser, he was told it was simply because he had a college degree.

On March 9, 1968, Jacobs was with the lead companies of his South Vietnamese battalion as they searched for the Vietcong. Suddenly, a large enemy force, hidden in bunkers only fifty yards away, opened fire with mortars, rifles, and machine guns. With no place to hide, many South Vietnamese soldiers were killed or wounded in the first few seconds.

A mortar round that landed just a few feet away sent shrapnel tearing through the top of Jacobs’s head. Most of the bones in his face were broken, and he could see out of only one eye. He tried calling in air strikes, but the intense enemy ground fire drove off the U.S. fighters. Shortly afterward, the lead company commander was badly wounded, and the South Vietnamese troops began to panic. Jacobs assessed the situation and realized that if someone didn’t act quickly, everyone would be killed. The words of Hillel, the great Jewish philosopher, jumped into his mind: “If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

During the helicopter ride to the field hospital, he lost consciousness several times. Days later at another hospital, doctors pieced his skull and face together. Though he would undergo more than a dozen surgical operations, he never regained his senses of taste and smell.

Back in the United States, Jacobs was assigned to Fort Benning, where he became the commander of an Officer Candidate company. About a year after the action, he received an order to report to Washington, and on October 9, 1969, at a ceremony at the White House, President Richard Nixon awarded him the Medal of Honor.

After completing graduate school at Rutgers University, where he earned an M.A. in international relations, Jacobs asked to return to Vietnam. The Army granted his request on the condition that he remain out of harm’s way. When he returned to Vietnam in July 1972, though, he immediately got himself assigned to the Vietnamese Airborne Division in the thick of fighting in Quang Tri. He walked away unscathed when the helicopter taking him to his unit was shot down, but he was subsequently wounded again.

Ultimately, he retired as a colonel after twenty years on active duty-quite a bit longer than the three years he had originally planned.


BORN: February 14, 1932, Walnut Grove, Minnesota

ENTERED SERVICE: Walnut Grove, Minnesota

BRANCH: U.S. Air Force

DUTY: Vietnam War


Over North Vietnam, 1967

Wild Weasel Dogfight


Major, U.S. Air Force 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron

Leo Thorsness enlisted in the Air Force in 1952 at the age of nineteen, largely because he had a brother serving in Korea. Though he didn’t make it to Korea himself, he stayed in the military, becoming an officer and a fighter pilot. In 1966, he went to Vietnam as part of a squadron of F-105s. The “Wild Weasel” was a specially modified two-seat F-105 and had the job of finding and destroying surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. The Weasels were capable of lingering in target areas longer than other fighters, and as a result suffered a high loss ratio; not many Weasel pilots completed their hundred-mission tours.

On April 19, 1967, Thorsness was on a mission deep in North Vietnam. He and his wingman took out an enemy SAM site with missiles, then destroyed a second site with bombs. In the second attack, the wingman radioed that his plane, hit by intense antiaircraft fire, was going down. “Turn toward the mountains and I’ll keep you in sight,” Thorsness told him. As the pilot and his backseater ejected from the damaged aircraft, Thorsness circled above to keep them in sight. Suddenly, he saw an enemy MiG-17 fighter setting up a gunnery pass on the parachutes. Although the Weasel was not designed for dogfights, Thorsness attacked the MiG and destroyed it with bursts from his gatling gun.

Dangerously low on fuel, Thorsness quickly air-refueled from a tanker and returned to the MiG-infested area to protect the downed crew from North Vietnamese soldiers. When his rear-seat weapons officer spotted four more MiGs in the area, he turned back through a barrage of North Vietnamese SAMs to engage them. He hit another one (although he never got credit for the kill because his gun camera had run out of film) and drove the remaining enemy planes away.

Heading for Udorn Royal Thai Air Base, the closest U.S. airfield, Thorsness climbed to thirty-five thousand feet. Seventy miles from base, with his fuel tanks on empty, he pulled the throttle to idle, knowing he could glide two miles for each thousand feet he fell. Just as he was landing, the F-105’s engine ran out of fuel and shut down.

Two weeks later, he was shot down over North Vietnam on his ninety-third mission. He bailed out and was captured, and wound up a prisoner of war in the “Hanoi Hilton,” where he ran into the two F-105 crew members he had tried to rescue. After two years of unremitting torture, he learned, through a secret “tap code” among the prisoners, that his name had been submitted for the Medal of Honor. (The officer in charge of writing Thorsness’s citation had been shot down himself and brought to the same prison.)

When the war ended in 1973,Thorsness was released and sent home. He had knee injuries, sustained when he had bailed out of his plane at six hundred knots, and back injuries as a result of torture. He received the Medal of Honor on October 15, 1973, from President Richard Nixon. “We’ve been waiting for you for six years,” Nixon told him. “Welcome home.”

Excerpted from “Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty” by Peter Collier and Nick Del Calzo (Photographer). Copyright © 2003 by Peter Collier and Nick Del Calzo. Published by Artisan Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.