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‘If one of us earned it, all of us did’

Brig. Gen. James W. Bierman congratulates Pfc. Joe B. Cordileone after presenting him with a Silver Star on Friday for his gallantry on April 30, 1967, in the Battle of Khe Sanh. Bierman is commanding general of Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, where the award ceremony took place.

Forty-six years after he was medically evacuated from Vietnam, Robert “Bobby” Moffatt stood at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.

“I’m amazed we’re here. I don’t understand how we made it,” he said. “I can’t believe that we all didn’t die that day.”

Nearly 30 of Moffatt’s fellow Marines died April 30, 1967, on Hill 881 South in Khe Sanh. Moffatt and Joe Cordileone, who served together in Company M, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, survived.

Last year, Moffatt was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device for valor, and Cordileone was awarded the Silver Star for their actions on the worst day of their lives.

The company was advancing to secure the hill when it was attacked by a significantly larger force, their award citation said.

Moffatt remembers answering the call for “guns up,” trying to engage the enemy without becoming a casualty. The hill was so pocked with bomb craters that it seemed like there wasn’t anybody there, he said, but the craters were concealing the enormous North Vietnamese Army bunkers.

Then-Pfc. Moffatt, an assistant machine gunner, took control when the lead gunner was killed. Moffatt and a fellow gunner laid behind an uprooted tree, providing protective fire even as they were “overwhelmed by incoming lead.”

“I just couldn’t return enough fire fast enough to make the slightest bit of difference,” he said.

Eventually, a bullet hit Moffatt’s gun, went into his mouth and lodged at the back of his skull.

Then-Pfc. Cordileone was attacking several enemy fighters until he realized the NVA snipers were targeting the wounded Marines.

“Realizing the wounded had to be evacuated from the hill quickly, Cordileone advanced multiple times to recover the wounded, repeatedly exposing himself to mortal danger,” according to his citation.

Cordileone was hit and passed out from exertion and loss of blood.

When he regained consciousness, he continued to attack the enemy and move his fellow Marines to safety, his award citation said.

He saved at least 10 Marines, including Moffatt.

Moffatt passed out from his head wounds and later woke up briefly in a “filthy bomb crater,” he said, with no recollection of how he got there. He later learned Cordileone had dragged him there for safety.

Accepting the award, he thanked Cordileone and the others for “caring for those of us who couldn’t protect themselves.”

Cordileone, 19 at the time, was in his first firefight, convinced that he was going to die, he said. But, he thought, “‘If I have to die, I’m going to die, but I’m not going to let them down. I’m not going to disappoint another Marine.’”

Cordileone said he was grateful to be awarded the Silver Star, though he downplayed his actions.

“Honest to God, I don’t think any other Marine, and certainly any other Marine on that hill, would have done anything less than I did,” he said. “If one of us earned it, all of us did ... though, I must say, what Bobby Moffatt did was damn courageous.”

Moffatt was hospitalized for more than a year with his wounds, and said he heard about what happened that day from fellow Marines.

While he said he was honored to accept the award so many years later, in memory of the Marines who died, he said it is bittersweet that “the very thing that saved my life may have cost other lives.”

“It was basically my duty to take care of the gun,” he said.

The Marines were nominated for the awards by a retired major general who had been the men’s platoon leader before the battle, who learned recently that they had not been recognized for their actions because of the heavy losses in the battle.

Moffatt retired as a senior cost estimator and quality control supervisor for a Navy ship facility and lives in Riverside, Calif. Cordileone is the chief deputy city attorney for San Diego.

Looking at their biographies, Moffatt said, it may seem like they have little in common.

But in 1967, “we were just young Marines with a lot in common: Defending the honor of our country, honoring our contracts with the United States Marine Corps and doing whatever was required to save each other’s ass under the most obscene and adverse conditions one might imagine,” he said.

hlad.jennifer@stripes.com

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