PEORIA — The four men minced no words. If it wasn't for the actions of Hal Fritz 50 years ago, they likely wouldn't be here.
"I can't thank everyone enough for what they did that day," said Mike Mitchell, then a 20-something sergeant with the U.S. Army in Vietnam. "If he hadn't done what he did that day, then I wouldn't have three children and seven grandchildren. I can't thank him enough."
Spc. Bart "Doc" Fabian spoke of Fritz's calm demeanor when a company of North Vietnamese soldiers ambushed their column of M113 armored personnel carriers. Fritz, then a 24-year-old first lieutenant, gathered up what was left of the fighting force and led a counterattack that bought the two dozen troopers enough time until relief arrived.
For his actions, exactly 50 years ago Friday, Fritz, 74, earned the nation's highest military award for valor, the Medal of Honor. And to commemorate that day, a celebration was held at the Peoria Riverfront Museum, where more than 200 gathered to pay tribute to Fritz and to the men who served with him. Members of the Richwoods High School Marines JROTC unit presented the colors and escorted the four veterans into the room while the audience applauded.
"I love this guy. There is no two ways about it. I am indebted to him forever. There's no way that I wouldn't have been here tonight," said Fabian, who earned the Silver Star, the nation's third-highest award for valor, that day.
The appearance of his friends — Fabian, Mitchell, William Lister and Jim Colwell — was a surprise. When John Morris, the museum's president, announced they were there and when Fritz saw them come onto the stage in the museum's Giant Screen Theater, he was emotional. Hugs were given, words exchanged and that unbreakable bond that combat veterans often talk about was clear for all to see.
The event started at 5:11 p.m., as 11 means much to Fritz.
It was the number of his old U.S. Army unit, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, nicknamed the "Darkhorse" regiment. And it represents the date of the ambush — Jan. 11, 1969 — when the column was coming back from a mission in the Bình Long Province. Due his "extraordinary courage and selflessness displayed by (Fritz), at the repeated risk of his own life," he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor for valor under fire.
Troop A was in a seven-vehicle convoy down Highway 13, which is north of what was then Saigon. What happened next is the stuff that even John Wayne couldn't pull off in a movie. The troopers with the 11th ACR had just left a convoy of fuel trucks and were returning to their base when they entered a gully. As they began to come out, Mitchell, who was riding with Colwell in the last APC, or "track," remembers being "blown up into the air."
"We took an RPG round and it hit the gas tank," he said. "Jimmy here was caught on fire."
When he landed, he had broken a knee cap. He tried to run toward one side and then the other, but on each side, he could hear North Vietnamese soldiers. So he played dead and lay still, atop a red ant nest. Colwell suffered horrific burns from the gas tank explosion, as he was situated near that area of the M113. He told the audience he remembers going in and out of consciousness due to the pain. He was aided by Lister, who also earned a Silver Star that day, and put into another M113 until it was struck.
Fabian, a quiet, slender man, said it was Fritz's calm demeanor that set the tone and ultimately saved the men. There was no doubt, he and others said, who was in charge that day. And the calmness exuded by Fritz was "contagious," said Fabian, who was the group's medic.
His Medal of Honor citation says, in part, "Realizing that his platoon was completely surrounded, vastly outnumbered, and in danger of being overrun, Capt. Fritz leaped to the top of his burning vehicle and directed the positioning of his remaining vehicles and men. With complete disregard for his wounds and safety, he ran from vehicle to vehicle in complete view of the enemy gunners in order to reposition his men, to improve the defenses, to assist the wounded, to distribute ammunition, to direct fire, and to provide encouragement to his men."
The North Vietnamese almost broke through the defenses until Fritz, "armed with only a pistol and bayonet, led a small group of his men in a fierce and daring charge which routed the attackers and inflicted heavy casualties."
When it was over, two GIs were dead and nearly every trooper wounded. Fritz was presented the Medal of Honor in 1971 at a White House ceremony by President Richard Nixon.
During the hourlong ceremony that wrapped up at about 6:11 p.m. Friday, Fritz was clearly enjoying the moment. He joked with his friends, told his story but also took time to explain the meaning of the medal. It's something that he and many other recipients — one doesn't "win" the Medal of Honor — say represents all who serve in the military. He stressed repeatedly, motioning to the four men next to him, that they worked as a team. They weren't going to give up, ever, he told the audience.
"The North Vietnamese didn't know who they were fighting. What happens when you catch a tiger by the tail? You get eaten," he said.
John Bearce, owner of the John Bearce Companies, was the honorary chairman of the event and did much to bring the men to Peoria as well as to help plan the event. Himself a veteran — Bearce served in the Marines — Bearce said Fritz is a great American.
"He put himself above and beyond everyone else and says, 'I'm going to get everyone out of here and I'm going to get my troopers home,'" he said.
Morris noted that Fritz allowed some of his war memorabilia, including a picture of him at the White House with Nixon, a telegram home to his wife stating he was wounded, his helmet, boots and a Zippo lighter that likely saved his life, to be displayed at the museum for the next few months. It was in his left breast pocket and had taken a rifle round. There's also a print of a painting that was commissioned about the battle. Every person pictured, Fritz said, is a real person. Lister agreed and pointed out where he was standing in the picture and how it was reflective of what happened that day.
"Had the light not been there, it would have hit me in the heart and killed me. I'm not advocating smoking. Don't get me wrong, but without that, I wouldn't be here to tell the story," he said.
There are only 74 living recipients of the Medal of Honor in a nation of more than 300 million people, Morris noted. He added that Peoria was lucky to have Fritz, a Chicago native, make his home in Peoria.
Standing in front of the museum exhibit that extolled his heroic acts, Fritz stressed that it wasn't just about him.
"I think it's a beacon to show America that we do have men and women who serve. They are dedicated, valorous and some of them pay the ultimate price. This is a reflection of that. It's not just a reflection of what I did but what men and women have done serving in the armed forces, and what they are willing to do and willing to continue to do to preserve freedom," Fritz said.
Andy Kravetz can reached at 686-3283 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @andykravetz.