The staff sergeant had been wounded by a Viet Cong sniper but he didn’t let that stop him.
Despite his wounds and the oncoming bullets, the staff sergeant ran through a rice paddy toward the sniper and didn’t stop firing until the sniper was dead. Capt. Duke Gerhardt witnessed this incident from a hedgerow in 1966 in the Quang Tri Province. Gerhardt nominated the staff sergeant for the Distinguished Service Cross.
But the award was rejected because the unit commander believed the staff sergeant just did what he had to do. The Soldier received nothing for his heroism.
“My boss said ‘What else could he do?’” Gerhardt recalled. “And I almost blew my top at that time. What else could he have done? He could’ve laid there dead.”
This happened throughout Gerhardt’s first of two tours in Vietnam. He said he faced more danger as an adviser to a Vietnamese combat unit from 1966-67 than he did when he returned from 1969-70. But Gerhardt received his awards for heroism – including the Silver Star for gallantry, the Bronze Star for bravery, the Air Medal for valor and the Army Commendation Medal for valor twice awarded – during his second tour.
“My first tour, we received no awards or decorations. The commanders didn’t believe in it. They felt: If you did something that might’ve been brave it was your duty,” Gerhardt said. “So I have a strong disregard for a lot of the commanders in Vietnam who disregarded the valor in the Soldiers under them.”
Gerhardt, a 1959 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, was 31 and married when he reported to the Quang Tri Province at the demilitarized zone in 1966. As an adviser to the Vietnamese, he went on combat operations with company-size units to detect and engage North Vietnamese forces coming across the DMZ.
On his first combat operation, he walked toward the beautiful sandy beaches at the Gulf of Tonkin. He looked out at the water and the sand and thought about how America would eventually put hotels there. Gerhardt felt a bee buzz by his ear. He swatted as another bee buzzed across his head. But then he noticed two splashes in the water. Gerhardt started running back toward the beach when he realized these were gunshots from a sniper.
On another operation, his Vietnamese unit prepared a night-time ambush in 1967 to capture or kill a notorious Viet Cong leader known as “The Tiger.” They later learned that they had successfully killed the leader by shooting him through the eye. Gerhardt wrote a book about the operation which he titled, “The Eye of the Tiger.”
Gerhardt went on 12-15 operations during that yearlong tour; and each operation lasted three or four days. He spent most of his time with one Vietnamese company. Some of the contacts with the enemy were major, he said, and some were minor.
“I always wondered how I lived through it all. I really don’t know,” he said. “Because there were many more incidents on my first tour where I was in danger as opposed to my second tour which is where I only spent half my tour with a combat unit.”
He returned to the U.S. in June 1967 and went to the University of Southern California to get his master’s degree. Gerhardt quickly learned that he shouldn’t wear his uniform to class because he got spat on at USC. He graduated with his master’s in mechanical engineering in 1969.
The Richmond, Virginia, native went back to Vietnam in June 1969 with the 25th Infantry Division. For the first six months, he was assigned with the 4th of the 23rd Mechanized Infantry Battalion in Tai Ninh. He was the battalion executive officer.
The battalion was attacked by a large enemy force in September 1969. Gerhardt, then a major, accompanied the battalion commander in the field. But the commander lost contact with his left-side company and sent Gerhardt to restore communications.
“So I went across a couple of rice paddies and into the woods. And I started to see Soldiers coming out of the jungle area, running toward me,” Gerhardt said. “I stopped them. I asked what had happened. They said the platoon leader and platoon sergeant had been killed and they just got up and left their positions. With all the strength I could muster, I said ‘We don’t do that’ and I waved them forward back into the woods.
“I had to maneuver back into the jungle to their original positions and placed them on line. And we found the platoon sergeant who had been wounded and the platoon leader who had been killed. We dragged their bodies to a safe position. I dragged one and the NCO dragged the other. And then I appointed a new platoon leader and platoon sergeant and told them to take over.”
Gerhardt found that the platoon’s radio had been shot, which explained the loss of communications. He returned to tell the battalion commander who immediately sent another radio to the company. Then the battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel, proceeded to chastise Gerhardt for getting involved in the battle. But he nominated Gerhardt for the Silver Star which did get awarded.
One evening at the battalion’s base camp, Gerhardt was injured in a rocket attack. A 122mm rocket tore into a wooden one-story building next door. Shrapnel hit his left arm. Gerhardt grabbed his helmet and ran to the building to look for casualties and damage. He saw a Soldier whose arm was severed; he took off his shirt and put it in the hole where the Soldier’s arm had been. Gerhardt and others helped the Soldier to an aid station. Gerhardt returned to the damaged building but it collapsed while he was inside. One beam struck him on the left side of his face under his eye. He said he had no feeling on that side of his face until about four years later. The injured Soldier, who he had assisted initially, died.
Gerhardt, 84, was medically retired in 1981 as a lieutenant colonel after 23 years of service. He was president of his own company, DG Associates, from 1994-2012 when he retired. He is a lifetime member of both the Vietnam Veterans of America and the Association the U.S. Army. Gerhardt was inducted into the Madison County Military Hall of Heroes in 2010.
“The worst contact I was ever in (with the enemy) was with a North Vietnamese battalion near the DMZ,” he said. “The firefight lasted maybe 10 or 15 minutes at the most. And when the NVA withdrew, I found myself sitting in the middle of a pineapple grove surrounded by dead bodies. Don’t know how I survived.”
He and wife of 43 years, Brigitte, who he met in Germany, reside in southeast Huntsville. He has four children, including one from his previous marriage – oldest daughter Keri Michaels who resides in Nashville. Daughters Jackie and Lisa, and son David all live in Huntsville. David has a son, Adam.
Gerhardt, who likes to write, shared his thoughts on this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“I think it’s sad,” he said. “First, there was very little credit given to the Soldiers that were there. A lot of Soldiers deserved recognition but didn’t get it.”
Editor’s note: This is the 251st in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.