On Nov. 8, 1965, Niles Harris, a 19-year-old kid from Deadwood, SD, fought the battle of his life in Vietnam, his leg shredded with shrapnel, and lived to tell the tale. Another American soldier made sure of his survival, Specialist Fifth Class Lawrence Joel, a medic who patched up Harris and never gave up the fight. It happened during Operation Hump, a strategy devised to drive out the Vietcong who had taken positions on several key hills in War Zone D, about 17.5 miles north of Bien Hoa.
They called it “Hump” for a hopeful reason: It was halfway through the 12-month tour of duty. Once that day passed, soldiers were on the downhill side of their commitment. The 173rd Paratroopers were expecting an easy push, but as the US Army Airborne and Special Operations Museum describes:
“While there had been some sharp encounters with the Vietcong during those first six months, the contacts were typically brief interactions that ended with the enemy retreating. Operation HUMP changed all of that for the 173rd and the US Army.”
Instead of the expected retreat, the Vietcong pushed forward, surrounding US troops. American soldiers described fighting in such close contact that bayonets were more efficient than bullets, but they managed to take the target. The 24-hour battle took the lives of 48 members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. It would have been even worse had it not been for Specialist Fifth Class Lawrence Joel.
A Career Soldier
Joel was from Winston-Salem, NC, and left home early to become a Merchant Marine. Eventually, he enlisted in the Army and served until retirement in 1973. On Nov. 8, 1965, Joel was in the line of fire. For 24 hours, the calm medic comforted and treated the wounded, among them Harris, while awaiting evacuation. Joel took two bullets to the leg, treated himself, and continued to search for and aid an additional 13 injured soldiers.
President Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Medal of Honor, citing in brief that Joel exhibited “a very special kind of courage — the unarmed heroism of compassion and service to others.” Johnson read the citation on the White House lawn in 1967. A slice of the tribute follows:
“After treating the men wounded by the initial burst of gunfire, he bravely moved forward to assist others who were wounded while proceeding to their objective. Then, completely ignoring the warnings of others, and his pain, he continued his search for wounded, exposing himself to hostile fire; and, as bullets dug up the dirt around him, he held plasma bottles high while kneeling completely engrossed in his life-saving mission.”
Not only was Joel the first medic to earn the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War but also the first living African American to receive the medal since the Spanish-American War. It was a nation divided in the ‘60s and ‘70s that these soldiers returned to. They were not greeted with a “thank you for your service.” They were vilified as “baby killers” and told to take their uniforms off before deplaning. So no one dared to celebrate Joel, a man who exemplified “unarmed heroism.”
Later, three musicians made friends with that soldier from South Dakota wounded during Operation Hump. And now, there is a tribute to all those warriors who fought the battle and lost their brothers in arms.
To Fight for the Red, White, and Blue
Country-singing duo Big & Rich – Big Kenny and John Rich – friends of Harris, listened to his account of the day and wrote the song 8th of November in 2006 to honor that battle. Kris Kristofferson narrated an introduction:
“Our friend, Niles Harris, retired 25 years, United States Army, was one of the wounded who lived. This song is his story. Caught in the action of ‘kill or be killed’ — ‘Greater love hath no man to lay down his life for a friend.'”
It’s why Big Kenny wears the top hat on stage – it was a gift from a Deadwood boy who shared the horror of one day and permitted a song of remembrance to be written. It was one battle, but the war in Vietnam was labeled a “conflict” that US forces would not be allowed to win. Lasting almost 20 years, it would take the lives of 58,220 American military. Six decades later, we can honor the soldiers of the Vietnam War on Veterans Day, and those who don’t remember the conflict know what was lost on the 8th of November.
Crediting his survival to Joel, Harris returned to the Operation Hump battle site and buried there his old combat boots. He commemorates Nov. 8 every year:
“He puts on a gray suit over his Airborne tattoo
And he ties it on one time a year
And remembers the fallen as he orders a tall one
And swallows it down with his tears”