One of men saved still wonders why he paid the ultimate price
By Chinta Strausberg
For the first time, I will not be one of the speakers for the outdoor 16th annual ceremony and dedication of the General John A. Logan Monument being held Monday, May 28, 2012, 11 a.m. on Memorial Day at Michigan Avenue and 9th Street.
I was on the agenda that is until three-days ago when someone called and informed me that four speakers had to be cut from the outdoor ceremony due to time restraints. Unfortunately, I was one of them.
My heart sunk for a moment because I had promised my uncle, the late Milton B. Olive II, the father of Vietnam War hero Milton Lee Olive, III, I would do everything I could to lift up the name of his son, his only child.
But just as I reflected upon uncleâ€™s death-bed wish, a woman from The Lawrence Pucci Wedgwood Society of Chicago, which along with the Chicago Cultural Mile Association is hosting this ceremony, informed me that I would be allowed to speak during the 12:30 p.m. luncheon being held at The Blackstone Renaissance Hotel following the outdoor program.
My heart skipped a beat then calmed down because it was the late Lawrence Pucci who worked with me in trying to get a flower peace garden planted at Olive Park, located at 500 North Lake Shore Drive that is named after young Olive whom we called Skipper.
At 18, Skipper was the first African American to have received the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War. On October 22, 1965, Skipper, who was nicknamed by my paternal grandmother, spotted a live grenade during a search and destroy mission in Vietnam. Without hesitation, Skipper grabbed the device, placed it on his stomach allowing it to explode.
Skipper paid the ultimate price, his life, but he saved the lives of four of his comrades who were behind him. Of the four, only two are alive with one being in a nursing home in Washington State. Retired Captain Jimmy Stanford is alive and well and resides in Texas. We e-mail and call each other often. Stanford used to be a racist until Skipper saved his life.
As he once explained, hating blacks was normal if you were white and grew up in Texas. It was part of his culture, but all that changed on October 22, 1965 when Skipper chose to save his life.
In a taped interview on May 30, 2010, Stanford said back in 1965 he was assigned to Skipperâ€™s U.S. Army, Company B, 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry, 173d Airborne Brigade in Phu Cuong, Republic of Vietnam.
â€œI had a young black soldier assignedâ€ to his unit â€œby the name of Milton Olive. I did not know Milton Olive. I had only been there a few days. I had learned who the platoon sergeant wasâ€¦and who the people were that caused a lot of problems, but the people in between I did not get to know them too well before we started our operations,â€ Stanford recalled.
Referring to that fateful day, Stanford said, â€œWe were assigned a mission of clearing this areaâ€¦. On that day, we had been operating in conjunction with the other platoons in the company.
â€œWe were moving through the jungles and we had been ambushed for the third time that day, and this time Milton was about a foot and a half to my leftâ€¦. We were lying on the ground. The grenade fell between Milton Olive and me. I was scared. I left. I was very scared probably more so than my rank called for me to be, but Iâ€™m lying there and Iâ€™m looking at the yellow writing on this grenade and Milton grabbed this grenade and put it under himâ€¦.
â€œThe last thing I remember hearing him say was, â€˜Look out, lieutenant, grenade and the next thing I knew was the grenade was going off and he died in the blast saving my life,â€ said Stanford. â€œA lot of times people have asked me why did he do this. What type of person does this? But, these are questions I canâ€™t answer. There are a lot of what ifsâ€¦. What would have happened if he had picked it up and tossed it aside of me?
â€œA lot of time I go sleepless at night,â€ said Stanford. â€œI think about this and itâ€™s been on my mind for many years. Iâ€™m beginning to be an old man and Iâ€™m still thinking about this, and I still donâ€™t have the answers for this.â€
Referring to Memorial Day, Stanford said, â€œthis is the day that we need to think about things such as this and the sacrifices made not only by Milton Olive but by many soldiers like him.
â€œWe can have our barbecues and our picnics and things like that, but we still need to think about these people. Our freedom is not free. People like Milton Olive have given their life to ensure that we have a life of freedom and prosperity,â€ he stated.
Asked how did Skipperâ€™s saving his life change him, Stanford said, â€œIt has changed my life tremendously. You might say I was a pretty redneck up until this time. It caused me to stop and think. He gave me another chance of life to do something with it, and I think Iâ€™ve done the best that I can. Iâ€™ve enjoyed it, but I think about this daily. There isnâ€™t a day that goes by that I donâ€™t think about this young man.â€
â€œI was very much a racist,â€ he admitted. â€œI guess it was the atmosphere in which I was raised in. This changed my life. It wasnâ€™t an over night, complete 380-degrees, no. It was not that, but it began as an acceptance and from there it evolved to 480 degrees. It took many years to undue what I had been taught as a youngster,â€ Stanford admitted.
Today, Stanford says he thanks God every day he wakes up but admits he doesnâ€™t know why Skipper sacrificed his life for his friends.
Well, my family doesnâ€™t understand why Skipper did what he did either, but as a teenager who was born in Chicago, we are proud of this Englewood war hero who was born on November 7, 1946 to Milton B. and Clara Olive. She died giving birth to Skipper who was a breech baby. My dadâ€™s parents, Jacob Augustus and Zylphia Wareagle Spencer, raised Skipper at 6012 S. Loomis, a building Skipperâ€™s dad purchased.
Skipper went to several schools in Englewood including Copernicus where I once planned Thanksgiving turkey giveaways for the children and their parents. I wanted to go there to see if I could feel some sort of connection with Skipper a young man my cousin, Dr. Barbara Penelton, who grew up with Skipper, described as being 5â€™6â€ and never weighing more than 140-pounds.
Penelton said Skipper â€œwas often in the process of trying to prove that he could do what the â€˜big guysâ€™ could doâ€ and that he was proud to be a paratrooper. It is with deep pride and respect that we recognize and appreciate his courage and his bravery because he truly did demonstrate that he could do what few others, big or small, could do. He could save the lives of others knowing that it would be at the expense of his own.â€
Penelton admits she often tried to discourage Skipper from going to the service but he would write her back. â€œHis letters often included descriptions of events that verified that he could be a soldier with the best of them,â€ she said. â€œHe was proud of his uniform.
â€œI remember a time when he and my brother were both on leave. My brother hurried up and changed from his uniform so that he could go to the clubs to party. Skipper was too young to go to the clubs so he kept his uniform on and watched television with my grandparents,â€ Penelton recalled. Skipper, she said, â€œfelt great pride at being a service man and we feel great pride in his heroism.â€
I too feel a deep sense of pride in Skipperâ€™s unselfish and heroic actions that fateful fall day, and I will always remember and cherish the many conversations I had with his father, Uncle Milton, especially his asking me over and over again to always let the world know what his son did for his country.
So, once again, Uncle Milton, I am keeping my promise to you and I miss our long talks. I miss seeing how your face and eyes would light up when you talked about your son, but if you were here today, I would tell you that your sonâ€™s blood that spilled in Vietnam is still having a healing effect today.
I would tell you how it has changed the life of Captain Stanford who is no longer a racist and like the others Skipper saved, Platoon Sergeant Vince Yrineo who is in a nursing home, Lionel Hubbard, a private from Texas who like John Foster, boxer from Pittsburgh are no longer alive, all have children and grandchildren because of the love and respect Skipper had for his comrades and his country.
Skipperâ€™s life could have been quite different for he dropped out of high school because he was not challenged and went to Lexington, Mississippi to be with his paternal grandparents. When his father found out where his son was he was afraid that the KKK would kill Skipper so he gave him three choices: go back to school, get a job or join the military. The rest is history.
So, I say to soldiers of all wars, happy Memorial Day and thank you for your service to our great country. Thank you for your sacrifice you are and have made on our behalf. And to the families who lost their loved ones, I send you my deepest condolences, but I thank God for bringing your children our way for they have made America a greater and safer place for everyone.
Happy Memorial Day, America.
Chinta Strausberg is a Journalist of more than 33-years, a former political reporter and a current PCC Network talk show host. You can e-mail Strausberg at: Chintabernie@aol.com.