Sunday, February 13, 2011

Black History Month: Milton L. Olive III

PFC Milton Olive's story is best told from this article written a few years back.


Chicago Tribune, 12 May 2002

By Don Terry

The other guys who came back to their Chicago neighborhood on leave couldn't wait to snatch off their uniforms and run the streets one last time before shipping out to Vietnam. Not Milton "Skipper" Olive. The kid was so proud he practically slept in his.

You'd get up for breakfast and there was Skipper in his uniform, buttering his toast. You'd say goodnight and there he was, nodding off on the sofa in his Arm
y greens, the shadow of a smile marching across his face. Hut, two, three.

No doubt he would have worn his uniform out for a night o
n the town, but his father, Big Milton, kept him close to home. Milton was just 17.

Skipper, an only child, was "indulged," to put it politely. He got new bicycles for his birthday and cameras for Christmas. At family gatherings, when his cousins were dressed in jeans and t- shirts, he was often decked out in a suit that matched his dad's.

So it surprised his cousins that he had enlisted and become, of all things, a paratrooper. My goodness. He wasn't 6 feet tall standing on a stepladder. His
rifle and rucksack probably weighed as much as he did.

True, he had always been on the thin side. But he had also displayed, from his first breath, what folks called grit. His mother, Clara Lee, died four hours after delivering him. The doctors didn't think her fragile baby boy would live more than a day or two.

But he lived: 18 years, 11 months and 15 days.

Then on Oct. 22, 1965, ambushed in a Vietnam jungle, Milton L. Olive III threw himself on a hand grenade to save four soldiers he hardly knew. Six months later, on April 21, with cherry blossoms in full bloom and war protests rumbling on the horizon, President Lyndon Johnson posthumously awarded Olive the Medal of Honor. In a Rose Ga
rden ceremony, flanked by Mayor Richard J. Daley, the Olive family and two of the saved men--one black, one white--Johnson said that Olive's "instinct of loyalty" caused him to put others first and himself last. "In dying," the president said, "Pvt. Milton Olive taught those of us who remain how we ought to live."

Forever 18, Olive is buried in an all-black cemetery behind a small church in a Mississippi farming town. Today he is memorialized by Olive Terrace
at Ft. Gordon near Augusta, Ga., Olive- Harvey community college on Chicago's Far South Side and Olive Park on the edge of the lake, just north of Navy Pier.

The men he saved are now grandfathers and great-grandfathers. There's little chance you've heard of them, yet they, too, are heroes. The ordinary, everyday heroes we send off to war and then forget. This is their story: who they were and who they became because a skinny teenager from the South Side gave them the gift of life.

At 73, Vince Yrineo, the Mexican-American platoon sergeant, is the oldest. For years after the ambush, slivers of shrapnel still worked their way out of his skin and snagged on his shirt. They fell to the floor like teardrops.

He still saves a tattered piece of metal from that day. It is Milton Olive's dog tag. It's about an inch long and weighs no more than a nickel. One edge looks as if a wild animal took a bite out of it; another has been pierced by something evil, leaving a jagged hole in its once-shiny silver skin. Yrineo has kept it for 37 years. "To me," he says, "it's something sacred."

Lionel Hubbard, the black private from west Texas, is 57. Still tall, but not as lean, he hopes to retire from his oil refinery job in a couple of years. He wants to concentrate on the nine houses he and his wife of 36 years own and rent out near Houston.
He tries not to think about Vietnam. "But if it wasn't for Milton," he says, "I know I wouldn't be here talking to you right now."

The other private, John Foster, a black boxer from Pittsburgh, is 56. The guys used to call him "Hop" because he was so fast in the ring and on the football field. He has lost sight in his left eye and part of his left foot to diabetes. Nobody calls him Hop anymore.

"I know that since Milton died," he says, "I'm living for two people, not one." Along with another ambush survivor, Foster attended the Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House.

Finally, there is Jimmy Stanford, the white lieutenant struggling
to overcome a racist streak. He lives in San Antonio and is working on his fourth marriage. At 66, his hair is white as Texas cotton. His new wife is from Korea. Once upon a time, if anyone would have told him he would end up marrying "a minority gal," he would have said they were crazy. He might have asked them to step outside.

"Milton Olive changed me," he says. "I made a vow never to forget him."


The men of 3rd Platoon, Company B, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade, are humping and chopping their way through jungle so thick it swallows up the sunlight--and the Viet Cong. It's hot as an oven and Charlie's invisible. But he's
out there, all right. And he's close. He has been sniping at Company B--the Bravo Bulls--off and on for most of the day.

Several hours have passed since a flock of helicopters pl
unked the paratroopers down somewhere in the vicinity of Phu Cuong early this October morning.

The orders sound simple enough. They always do to the brass in the back.

Search and destroy.

The problem is, the enemy is like a ghost and it's his haunted
house. Death and Charlie are everywhere and nowhere.

A sniper already has killed George Luis, of Hawaii. A head shot. Nasty.

The platoon sergeant, Vince Yrineo, has to remind the
men and himself to keep moving. Mourn later.

At 36, Yrineo was a military lifer. A Los Angeles native, at 17 he enlisted in the Navy just after World War II, got out, played civilian for a while and then joined the Army when he got bored. He volunteered as a paratrooper after some jackass told him he
didn't have the guts to jump out of a plane.

His divorced mother, Dolores, was from the old country
, Mexico, and did whatever it took to keep her family of five boys and one girl from spending even one hungry night. She was a seamstress, a cook and, to hear her bemused son tell it, a successful bootlegger. "As a matter of fact," he says, "she bought a couple of houses with her earnings."

Yrineo's four brothers served in World War II. He wanted to be just like them even though he got disgusted with his country when his Japanese-American
neighbors were rounded up at the beginning of the war and sent to internment camps. "It really teed me off," he says. "It still does. They were Americans like everybody else."

Third Platoon is on the right flank of the company when it comes to a clearing in the jungle, a burned-out patch of brown and black littered with charred tree stumps.

Jimmy Stanford, at 29 a senior citizen as first lieutenants go, doesn't have to remind his men to keep their eyes open and their trigger fingers ready. He does anyway.

He's the platoon leader, rotated in just three days ago.
Not one of those West Point officers, Stanford is an enlisted man with ambition. It took him 11 years to earn his bars.

He joined the Army in 1954 when he was 18, a couple of years after dropping out of high school.

He was following family tradition. Stanford men have been putting on uniforms and marching off to battle since the War Between the States. His great-grandfather wore gray, a private in Company G, 46th Georgia Infantry. His daddy was a doughboy in World War I and survived a fog of poison gas rolling through his trench in France.

Stanford loved being a soldier. Still, working so closely w
ith blacks and Latinos took some getting used to. Lake Jackson, Texas, was a segregated town and Stanford couldn't remember seeing blacks after dark as a kid in the 1930s and '40s. "They stayed in their place," he says. "We stayed in ours."

He learned that lesson early in life. A black woman worked for his family when he was 6 or 7. She had a son about his age and the two boys got to be pals. One day when Stanford was playing with his friend, his daddy came along and chased the boy off, telling him to go play with his own kind.

After that, when Stanford crossed paths with blacks and La
tinos, "I'd give them hell," he says. "It was just normal racial harassment, nothing serious, practical jokes, name-calling, kid stuff."

In the jungles of Vietnam, Stanford didn't care if a soldie
r was black, white or blue so long as he did his job. But sometimes his upbringing showed. He once called a meeting of his squad leaders, two of whom were black, and told Yrineo to "go get those niggers."

The platoon begins moving through the clearing, when suddenly the thick, hot air is filled with bullets and grenades and the sound and smell of men getting hit by lead. Third Platoon has walked into an ambush.

"We didn't even see where it was coming from," says Hop Foster, then a 19-year-old private. "Either they opened up the ground and threw it up or they were up in the trees and tossed it down."

Just a couple of years earlier, Hop Foster's biggest worry i
n the world was where to celebrate with his black and Italian teammates after the Chiefs had beaten another opponent. For three years in a row, the Chiefs ruled sandlot football in Pittsburgh.

The son of a barroom bouncer and a domestic worker, Fost
er joined the Army at 18 because he needed a job after dropping out of school in 11th grade. But there was another reason he enlisted.

"I thought I was earning my citizenship by going into the service," he says. "I was paying my dues. Nobody could ever call me a second-class citizen now."

When the shooting starts, Lionel Hubbard, a 20-year-old private, dives behind what's left of a tree stump. "There was nothing else," he says. "If you raised up, you were dead."

The noise of battle is tremendous. So is the adrenaline roaring through Hubbard's slim body like a Texas twister.

His folks ran a cafe in Brownfield, Texas. They catered to the workers at the cotton compressor, and Hubbard helped out after school and on weekends. He joined the Army after graduating from high school because he didn't want to spend the rest of his life in a cafe.

He volunteered for the paratroopers because they were the toughest, the bravest, the elite. He loved jumping out of airplanes. But when he got to Nam, it t
ook him a long time before he would shoot at the enemy. "I didn't want to fight because I didn't have nothing against the Vietnamese," he says. "It's more than a notion to take a person's life."

His first weeks there, he couldn't sleep. He couldn't eat. He watched people die. Young people just like him were shot to pieces. Body bags lined up in th
e mud waited for the choppers to take them away. "After a while," he says, "I started shooting at everything that moved. I still didn't want to fight. I still didn't have nothing against the Vietnamese. But it was either them or me."

Hubbard is pinned down with a cluster of men, hiding behind stumps, faces buried in the dirt, bullets whistling inches over their heads, grenades comin
g in. The men are too close together. Stanford, Foster and Yrineo are lying near Hubbard and so is the skinny kid from Chicago, Milt Olive.

It surprised some of the guys that Olive was from Chi-town. As Hop Foster says, even a blind man could see he wasn't one of those street-smart kind of cats. He was more like the guy who quietly plays chess in the corner of the juke joint, near the fun but not all the way in it. "He was kind of clean-cut," Foster says.

On the other hand, he wasn't a square, either. He didn't cuss like a lot of his Army buddies, but he didn't get shocked if someone else did.

Olive joined B Company as a replacement in July, almost
four months before he was killed. He had a dry wit like his father. In a letter that summer to his cousin Barbara Penelton, who now heads the department of education at Bradley University, Skipper called himself "Uncle Sam's Number One Man in Viet Nam."

"Just a line to say hello," he wrote. "I'm over here in Never Never Land fighting this hellish war." Things had been "pretty tough" but they had "a ball" roasting wieners on sticks and "then we gathered around the fire."

"You said I was crazy for joining up," he continued, "well, I've gone you one better. I'm now an official U.S. Army Paratrooper. How does that grab you?
I've made six jumps already."

He was wounded slightly in a firefight soon after joining the outfit, but never told his father. He didn't want to worry him.

The father, Milton B. Olive Jr., thought joining the Army would be good for his son, make a man of him. The boy would be fine. America was at peace whe
n he signed up in 1964. No one had heard of Vietnam.

Big Milton clearly was devoted to his boy, dressing him i
n matching father-and-son suits, teaching him photography, giving him his name and the name of his father, but with one difference. When he took his frail son home from the hospital, he named him Milton Lee in memory of his late wife, Clara Lee.

Perhaps that's why Skipper always seemed more mature than other children. He had been on a first-name basis with death and loss since the day he was bor
n. "He took everything serious," says Leonard Hampton, a childhood friend. "He was a little bit conservative. He didn't hang too tough with the guys."

His father's cousin raised little Milton for the first several years of his life. The boy also spent a lot of time with his father's parents on their farm in Mississippi. In 1952, Big Milton married a schoolteacher, Antoinette Mainor. Skipper returned to his father's house for a few years, but attended high school in Mississippi.

Before he dropped out of school to join the Army at 17, Skipper was already fighting for his country. He was helping civil-rights workers register black p
eople to vote in the backwoods of Lexington, Miss. When his grandmother found out what he was doing, she had his father take him back up North. A few years earlier, another black boy from Chicago who misunderstood the way of the South, Emmett Till, had been lynched.

The family thought Skipper would be safer in the Army.

A bullet slams through Foster's helmet and rips off a piece of his eyebrow. "How bad?" he asks the man lying next to him.

"You'll live," Olive grins.

Moments later, a grenade lands in the middle of the five men.

"[It] was about a foot from my face," Stanford recalls. "Then
out comes this black hand and grabs it."

According to Stanford, the last thing Olive says is, "Look out, Lieutenant, grenade!"

According to Foster, the last thing Olive says is, "Look out, Hop, grenade!"

The last thing Olive does is shove the grenade under his body, taking the full force of the blast. It throws him into the air and flips him over on his back.

"I heard a muffled sound," Foster says. "Then for some reason it seemed like everything went real quiet. It was like they stopped the war after that."

But the war hasn't stopped. GIs are getting hit left and right. Shrapnel hits Hubbard. The toes on his left foot are dangling by a thin thread of skin. His boot is filled with blood.

Shrapnel smashes into Yrineo's face, arm and chest.

Hubbard and Yrineo have to be carried to a chopper. Hubbard spends three weeks in the hospital; Yrineo spends five days.

Stanford is hit too, but he doesn't realize it until he's back at the base camp and sees that his shirt is soaked with blood. All told, more than a dozen men are wounded.

Charlie whispers away into the jungle like a ghost.

A few days later and 10,000 miles away, a man in a suit clim
bed the stone steps of a bungalow on the South Side of Chicago and rang the bell. Inside, preparing dinner, was Antoinette Olive, Skipper's stepmother.

The man had a letter in his hand.

"Is someone here with you?" he asked.


The man said he would stay until she finished the letter in case she needed assistance.

"He knew what he was doing," she recalls. "You could tell he had done it before."

The letter said her stepson had died for his country and his parents should be proud. "I was just numb," she says. "In the movies you see people reading these letters, and they just fall apart. But when it happens to you, you're just numb. You see it, yo
u see the letters making the words that say your child is gone, but you just don't believe it."

The Army sent Olive's belongings to his parents, including an AM/ FM radio, a Bible and a camera. Olive loved taking photographs with his father, who made a few extra bucks snapping newlyweds and church picnics. Stuck inside the pages of his Bible was a business card his father had made for him years earlier: Milton Olive III, Chicago's Only 12-year-old Professional Photographer.

Before Olive's body arrived home, his family was worried t
hat he would have to have a closed-casket funeral because of the blast. But the grenade had not damaged his face. The war had.

"Oh my, how he had aged," his stepmother says.


After all these years, the Sarge is still looking out for his m

In a big red notebook in the small brick house where he lives alone just outside Tacoma, Wash., Vince Yrineo keeps the names of the eight men from his platoon who died during his first tour of duty. Each has a page in his sergeant's holy book, including the kid from Chicago, Milton Olive.

The Sarge also logs the dates they were born and when the Army stamped them KIA--killed in action. He keeps their hometowns and their serial numbers. He keeps their memories and his regrets. "So many young kids," he says, shaking his head, the book open in his lap. "They never had a chance to live. It makes you think the whole thing was a big waste."

They were killed by snipers and by exploding shells, by enemy
ambushes and by friendly fire.

They were killed despite his best efforts to keep them alive, to send them home to their families.

"My son was about 12 years old at the time," the Sarge says. "I tried to think of the people I was in charge of as being him."

Milton Olive has a special place in his heart and in his house. On a nightstand next to the bed, Yrineo has a small photo of his deceased son on a laminated funeral card, dead at 23 from diabetes, along with a Bible and a crucifix. But looming over the bedside shrine is a framed black and white, 8-by-10 photograph of Milton Olive in uniform, his doe eyes peering out from the past.

Yrineo has had the photo for 27 years. He has had Olive's dog tag for even longer, ever since a young grunt wiped away the blood and jungle grime and handed it to Yrineo in 1965. "Here, Sarge," he said, "you'll know what to do with this."

He keeps the tag on a bed of cotton in an earring box. He always meant to give it to Olive's father. Maybe it would give the old man a little comfort. Or maybe it would break his heart all over again, Yrineo wasn't sure. So he kept it, and the years passed and so did Milton Olive's father, who died in 1993 before Yrineo could work up the nerve to part with the tag.

Now Jimmy Stanford, his old platoon leader, wants the tag. Of all the guys Milton Olive saved that day, Stanford admits to being changed the most. "A day
doesn't go by that I don't think about it," he says.

When Yrineo showed him the dog tag a few years ago at a reunion, Stanford started bugging him for it.

No way, Yrineo said, no way in the world.

But Stanford kept pestering him and eventually they struc
k a deal.

"I told Jimmy if he outlives me he can have it," Yrineo says, leaning back in his living room recliner. "But that's the only way he's going to get it."

Stanford could have a long wait. At 73, Yrineo looks as though he could still fit into his old uniform. Every morning, if the weather is decent, he goes out into his back yard and raises the flag. Every evening at 5, he lowers it.

The ritual reminds him of the why of his life.


Of the four men Milton Olive saved, Lionel Hubbard has built the highest wall around his soul to keep the past out.

He doesn't have his dog tags anymore and he can't find his Purple Heart. He was going to buy one on the Internet, but decided he didn't need it. The Purple Heart license plate on his truck is good enough for him.

On his fireplace mantel sits a black and white photograph of Hubbard in fatigues, the 173rd Airborne patch on his shoulder, a smile on his face. The photo reminds him of how thin he used to be as much as anything else. He'd like to lose a few pounds, but at 57 he's holding his own.

He doesn't go to reunions and he is not in touch with his old Army buddies. His scrapbook from Vietnam, the one with the photographs of dead comrades hung from trees by Charlie and dead VC with their ears cut off--"payback," he explains--was lost a long time ago. For years, he thought his wife had deliberately thrown it out, worried that the ghosts would disturb his sleep. She says it was inadvertently lost in a move.

Sometimes he misses the book. But mostly he thinks it's good that it's gone. He hasn't tried to forget exactly. He just hasn't tried to remember. Forgetting is impossible anyway. Whenever he gets dressed in the morning or undressed at night, Vietnam and Milton Olive are there, embedded in his calves.

"See those little black spots?" he says, rolling up his pants legs. "All grenade fragments from that day."

Then he unlaces his left work boot. He pulls off his sock and wiggles his toes. Two of the toes are gnarled and discolored, smaller than they should be. "I prayed
to God every day I was over there, `Please let me make it back,' " he says. "Thanks to God and Milton, I did. Almost in one piece."

Hubbard has built a steady and comfortable life for himself and his family on a manmade lake in Texas City, Texas, about 35 miles south of Houston. He married his high school sweetheart, Madeline, in 1966, the year after Milton jumped on the grenade.

For the last 20 years he has worked at the Marathon plant, blending gasoline. His supervisor at work, Danny Anthony, also served in Nam. He was a medic. "I carried a lot of body bags," he says. When he and Hubbard talk, it's almost never about Vietnam

Hubbard has three grown children, all born after Milton Olive died. He also has a granddaughter, money in the bank and plans to retire in a couple of years so he and his wife can travel around the country in a camper. "Life ain't been half bad," he says.

Every once in a while there will be a story on the news about war vets returning to Vietnam, searching "for closure or something, I guess," Hubbard speculates. "Me, I don't ever want to go back. I didn't lose anything over there."


The city of Miami is still waking up when John Foster's wife, Lula Mae, drives him to the VA hospital for his thrice-weekly, four- hour dialysis treatment. At 56, kidney failure and diabetes, what Foster calls "sugar," are slowly eating him away. He has lost the sight in his left eye, and part of his left foot has been amputated. "Vietnam didn't do me this much damage," he says.

At the VA, Foster eases into a chair and nods good morning to the vet from Korea and the one from Desert Storm. The wife of another old soldier hand
s him a cup of coffee. She always has coffee for the Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning regulars. "It's like a family," Foster says.

Foster stands out in this room full of veterans and beeping blood machines. He has a long, gray beard, a gold hoop earring and a skullcap.

"I really think my life was spared for a purpose," he says. "I'm not going to be Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, but if there's one soul I can save, one person I can help up, then my life was saved for a reason. I think it was so I could help spread the word of God. All I can do with the gift Milton gave me is to try to pass it on."

Foster is a follower of Yahweh Ben Yahweh, the self-proclaimed prophet of a sect of "black Hebrews" in Miami that worshiped at the "Temple of Love" and preached that its members were the chosen people of the Yahweh Nation.

"In other religions they don't talk about black people, like we don't exist," Foster says. "He showed us how we were in the Bible all along. He wasn't being anti-white, he was being pro-black."

When Foster first got out of the service in 1966, he was adrift. "It took me a long time to get over Vietnam," he says.

He knocked around Pittsburgh and New York for several yea
rs, doing maintenance work, partying and occasionally going to church. "I guess you could say I was searching," he says. "I asked myself, 'Why me? Why was my life saved?' "

He moved to Miami in 1975 and was hired to manage the executive parking lot of a local television station. In 1978, he became a follower of the charismatic Yahweh Ben Yahweh. "Yahweh is the best thing to happen to me since Milton saved my life," Foster says. "If I have to lay my life down now, I'm ready. I feel I know God."

After amassing a small empire of buildings, cars and good deeds in the 1980s, the sect was brought down in the early '90s by a federal racketeering indic
tment that included several counts of murder. Yahweh Ben Yahweh was acquitted of the most serious charges against him but served nine years in prison for conspiracy. Several other members were also sent to prison.

Foster, known within the troubled nation as Enoch Israel, was also indicted and spent three years in jail awaiting trial. A federal jury could not reach a verdict. After a plea agreement on state charges, he was released in 1994.

Once again, Milton Olive had helped save Foster.

Foster's lawyer in the federal case, Chris Mancini, told the jury about Foster's good character, his long and steady blue-collar work history, his military service and his Purple Heart. Then he showed the panel a photograph.

It was of Foster standing tall and proud in his uniform, looki
ng over the shoulder of President Johnson at the White House during the Rose Garden ceremony for Milton Olive.

"I told them the whole story," Mancini says. "I told them that John was very moved by that kid."


Jimmy Stanford is hurrying through the lunchtime crowd
along the San Antonio Riverwalk, headed for the restroom, hoping for a little privacy. His eyes are starting to well up talking about what Milton Olive did for him and he doesn't want anyone to see him let loose.

He figures it's more than a little embarrassing, a past vice president of the Special Forces Association of San Antonio, with two tours in Nam under his belt and a Purple Heart on his wall, a mature man, as they say, with 13 grandchildren, a great-grandchild and a second on the way, crying in front of a bunch of tourists throwing tortilla chips at the ducks. People might think he's shell-shocked or something.

Coming back to the table a few minutes later, he says you'd reckon that at age 66 he wouldn't still get so emotional about something that happened 37 years ago, but the boy saved his life.

And opened his heart.

"His act definitely changed me," Stanford says, taking a long pull on his beer. "But it didn't happen overnight. I was a real redneck. I didn't just wake up one morning and say, 'I'm going to quit feeling negative about blacks.' It took several yea

He agrees it's a shameful commentary that Milton Olive had to jump on a hand grenade to push Stanford down this trail, but that's how it was. He's not proud of it; he's just trying to be honest.

He's not saying he's perfect now, either. He knows he still has work to do on his soul. He asks, Who doesn't?

It has been a rocky journey, not much different from the one the country he protected for 24 years as a soldier has been on since the civil rights movement. "I've tried to live a better life," he says. "I know I've treated people more fairly. Tolerance alone won't do it. You've got to trust one another."

He says what's happened to him lately is living proof that even an old, old dog can learn new tricks. After all, his fourth wife, Judy, is Korean. They got married last May. As far as he's concerned, Milton Olive was the best man.

She reaches across the table and gives his arm a squeeze.

"I think I got a good antique," she says, referring to their 13- year age difference.

His eyes are getting misty again.

Stanford has been sending Christmas cards to Olive's parents for 30 years. "I wanted to let his family know that I was grateful," he says. He used to address the cards to Mr. and Mrs. Olive until the father passed away in 1993 at age 81. His widow still has a stack of Christmas cards from Stanford, the latest one postmarked December 2001.

Stanford stayed in the Army for 13 years after Olive died. He says that back in 1970, the military went on "a sensitivity kick." Tension between black soldiers and white soldiers in Vietnam had grown increasingly thick, a reflection of troubles at home. The Army had to do something.

During his last four years in uniform, Stanford was assigned to the Army's Office of Race Relations and Equal Opportunity. He worked with a black sergeant, setting up seminars on race. "We were what they called a salt-and-pepper team,"
he says. "He was the good guy and I was the bad guy."

He says the Army figured the other white soldiers would be more willing to listen to one of their own, a veteran with a Texas accent. His buddies were not thrilled with the military or with him. They felt "a nigger program" was being shoved down their throats. "I lost some friends when I got into that field of work," Stanford says.

After leaving the Army, Stanford tried his hand at the home contracting business and spent 17 years at Dow Chemical. Now he works in the service department of a Cadillac dealership.

His narrow escape from Vietnam is never far from his thoughts. In 1991, he decided to visit Milton Olive's grave. The problem was, he wasn't sure where it was. Chicago, he assumed. He wrote Olive's father to make sure.

The old man quickly wrote back. Stanford still has the letter. "Thanks so much for remembering us," the father wrote. "You are the only one who has done so." He told Stanford that his son was buried in Lexington, Miss. He gave him some phone numbers of relatives he could stay with.

The next spring, Stanford had a wreath of plastic flowers made up in red, white and blue, arranged to look like a flag. He loaded it in his van and drove to Lexington and the small cemetery next to West Grove Church. There waiting for him was Olive's father, who had driven down from Chicago.

The two men had not seen each other since the Medal of Honor ceremony in 1966. They embraced, and Stanford laid his wreath. He stepped back from the grave, raised his trembling hand and saluted his fallen comrade.

Several of Olive's cousins walked up, stood beside Stanford and began to sing. They asked him to join. At first he begged off. His eyes and voice were full of tears. He turned away to regain his composure and then he, too, began to sing.

"I once was lost but now am found; was blind, but now I see."

On April 21, 1966, President Johnson read these remarks before the Medal of Honor was awarded to the Olive family:

Mr. and Mrs. Olive, members of the Olive family, distinguished Mayor Daley, Secretary Resor, General Wheeler, Members of the Senate, Members of the House, ladies and gentlemen,

There are occasions on which we take great pride, but little pleasure. This is one such occasion. Words can never enlarge upon acts of heroism and duty, but this Nation will never forget Milton Lee Olive III.

President Harry Truman once said that he would far rather have won the Medal of Honor than to have been the President of the United States. I know what he meant. Those who have earned this decoration are very few in number. But true courage is very rare. This honor we reserve for the most courageous of all of our sons.

The Medal of Honor is awarded for acts of heroism above and beyond the call of duty. It is bestowed for courage demonstrated not in blindly overlooking danger, but in meeting it with eyes clearly open.

And that is what Private Olive did. When the enemy's grenade landed on that jungle trail, it was not merely duty which drove this young man to throw himself upon it, sacrificing his own life that his comrades might continue to live. He was compelled by something that's more than duty, by something greater than a blind reaction to forces that are beyond his control.

He was compelled, instead, by an instinct of loyalty which the brave always carry into conflict. And in that incredibly brief moment of decision in which he decided to die, he put others first and himself last. I have always believed that to be the hardest, but the highest, decision that any man is ever called upon to make.

So in dying, Private Milton Olive taught those of us who remain how we ought to live.

I have never understood how men can ever glorify war. "The rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air," has always been for me better poetry than philosophy. When war is foisted upon us as a cruel recourse by men who choose force to advance policy, and must, therefore, be resisted, only the irrational or the callous, and only those untouched by the suffering that accompanies war, can revel.

So let us never exult over war. Let us not for one moment disguise in the grandest justifications of policy the inescapable fact that war feeds on the lives of young men, good young men like Milton Olive. And I can never forget it. I am reminded of it every moment of every day. And in a moment such as this, I am reminded all over again how brave the young are, and how great is our debt to them, and how endless is the sacrifice that we call upon them to make for us.

And I realize, too, how highly we prize freedom—when we send our young to die for it.

There are times when Vietnam must seem to many a thousand contradictions, and the pursuit of freedom there an almost unrealizable dream.

But there are also times—and for me this is one of them—when the mist of confusion lifts and the basic principles emerge:

That South Vietnam, however young and frail, has the right to develop as a nation, free from the interference of any other power, no matter how mighty or strong;

That the normal processes of political action, if given time and patience and freedom to work, will some day, some way create in South Vietnam a society that is responsible to the people and consistent with their traditions;

That aggression by invading armies or ruthless insurgency must be denied the precedent of success in Vietnam, if the many other little nations in the world, and if, as a matter of fact, all Southeast Asia is to ever know genuine order and unexploited change;

That the United States of America is in South Vietnam to resist that aggression and to permit that peaceful change to work its way, because we desire only to be a good and honorable ally, a dependable, trustworthy friend, and always a sincere and genuine servant of peace.

Men like Milton Olive die for honor. Nations that are without honor die too, but without purpose and without cause. And it must never be said that when the freedom and the independence of a new and a struggling people were at stake that this mighty, powerful Nation of which we are so proud to be citizens would ever turn aside because we had the harassments that always go with conflict, and because some thought the outcome was uncertain, or the course too steep, or the cost too high.

In all of this there is irony, as there is when any young man dies. Who can say what words Private Olive might have chosen to explain what he did? Jimmy Stanford and John Foster, two of the men whose lives he saved that day on that lonely trail in that hostile jungle 10,000 miles from here are standing on the White House steps today because this man chose to die. I doubt that even they know what was on his mind as he jumped and fell across that grenade.

But I think I do know this: On the sacrifices of men who died for their country and their comrades, our freedom has been built. Whatever it is that we call civilization rests upon the merciless and seemingly irrational fact of history that some have died for others to live, and every one of us who enjoys freedom at this moment should be a witness to that fact.

So Milton Olive died in the service of a country that he loved, and he died that the men who fought at his side might continue to live. For that sacrifice his Nation honors him today with its highest possible award.

He is the eighth Negro American to receive this Nation's highest award. Fortunately, it will be more difficult for future presidents to say how many Negroes have received the Medal of Honor. For unlike the other seven, Private Olive's military records have never carried the color of his skin or his racial origin, only the testimony that he was a good and loyal citizen of the United States of America.

So I can think of no more fitting tribute to him than to read from a letter that was written to me by this patriot's father, dated March the 10th. And I quote:

"It is our dream and prayer that some day the Asiatics, and the Europeans, and the Israelites, and the Africans, and the Australians, and the Latins, and the Americans can all live in one world. It is our hope that in our own country the Klansmen and the Negroes, the Hebrews and the Catholics will sit down together in the common purpose of good will and dedication; that the moral and creative intelligence of our united people will pick up the chalice of wisdom and place it upon the mountain top of human integrity; that all mankind, from all the earth, shall resolve, 'to study war no more.' That, Mr. President, is how I feel and that is my eternal hope for our Great American Society."

And ladies and gentlemen, I have no words to add to that.

Milton Olive’s Medal of Honor Citation was read by Secretary of the Army Stanley R. Resor

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of The Congress the Medal of Honor, posthumously, to Private First Class Milton L. Olive, III United States Army for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.

Private First Class Milton L. Olive, III, distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his own life above and beyond the call of duty while participating in a search and destroy operation in the vicinity of Phu Cuong, Republic of Vietnam, on 22 October 1965. Private Olive was a member of the 3d Platoon of Company B, 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry, as it moved through the jungle to find the Viet Cong operating in the area. Although the Platoon was subjected to a heavy volume of enemy gun fire and pinned down temporarily, it retaliated by assaulting the Viet Cong positions, causing the enemy to flee. As the Platoon pursued the insurgents, Private Olive and four other soldiers were moving through the jungle together when a grenade was thrown into their midst. Private Olive saw the grenade, and then saved the lives of his fellow soldiers at the sacrifice of his own by grabbing the grenade in his hand and failing on it to absorb the blast with his body. Through his bravery, unhesitating actions, and complete disregard for his own safety, he prevented additional loss of life or injury to the members of his platoon. Private Olive's conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and intrepidity at the risk of his own life above and beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the United States Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.

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