WASHINGTON — Spc. Santiago J. Erevia had orders to tend the wounded while the rest of the platoon pressed on attacking. But when he and the men under his care came under fire from four nearby Viet Cong bunkers on May 21, 1969, Erevia didn’t dive for cover.
Instead, he gathered up spare weapons and ran into a storm of bullets.
He knocked out one bunker after another with hand grenades as gunners in the others fired on him. Out of grenades and with one bunker still active, he took an M-16 in each hand and charged, shooting down the last defender at point blank range.
“Having single-handedly destroyed four enemy bunkers and their occupants, Specialist Fourth Class Erevia then returned to the soldiers charged to his care and resumed treating their injuries,” reads Erevia’s citation for the Distinguished Service Cross he was later awarded.
In a White House ceremony Tuesday, the United States will officially acknowledge that the selfless combat heroics of 24 soldiers, including Erevia, always merited more than the nation’s second-highest medal for valor.
President Barack Obama will present the Medal of Honor to Erevia and two other living recipients — former NCOs Melvin Morris and Jose Rodela. And he’ll present it posthumously to another 21 soldiers killed in battle or who died before they could receive the distinction they had earned.
Because of the politics and prejudices of earlier decades, doubt has long lingered over whether Hispanic-Americans or Jewish-Americans had been given equal consideration with Anglo-Americans for the Medal of Honor.
So in the 2002 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress ordered the Army review the cases of all Jewish and Hispanic soldiers who had received the Distinguished Service Cross from World War 2 onward to see if their heroism actually merited the nation’s highest award.
Army researchers combed through some 6,500 Distinguished Services Cross awards and zeroed in on 600 that went to soldiers who might be of either background. In the end, the Army singled out 19 Jewish and Hispanic soldiers who deserved Medal of Honor, along with five soldiers of other backgrounds.
The action echoed an earlier review ordered in 1996, which found seven black soldiers deserved the Medal of Honor for actions in World War II. Before that, there no were African-American recipients of the medal for that war.
Among the deserving soldiers found in the latest review was Former Special Forces NCO Melvin Morris, an African-American who had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for action on Sept. 17, 1969.
According to his medal citation, the staff sergeant was commanding a strike force in the Mekong Delta when he received word that the commander of another team had been killed near an enemy bunker. Soon, the two soldiers he’d set out with to recover the body had themselves been wounded, and Morris helped evacuate them.
Then he turned around and charged a line of bunkers, destroying several with grenades and driving the remaining enemy fighters back. As he struggled back to the task force, he was shot three times but managed to make it back with the body of his fellow Green Beret.
A number of the men who’ll be honored Tuesday never made it out of the battles in which they distinguished themselves for bravery.
Staff Sgt. Felix M. Conde-Falcon was killed after mounting a devastating assault on a bunker complex on April 4, 1969. After assaulting and destroying several bunkers with grenades, he attacked a fourth bunker single-handedly with a machine gun, killing the enemy inside, according to his Distinguished Service Cross Citation.
Out of ammo, he picked up an M-16 and zeroed in on a fifth. A few meters from his goal, he was shot and killed.
Pfc. Leonard Kravitz, sacrificed himself for his fellow soldiers during brutal fighting on the Korean peninsula on March 7, 1951.
After the machine gunner he was assigned to assist was wounded, Kravitz took over the job, “and poured devastating fire into the ranks of the onrushing assailants,” the citation for his Distinguished Service Cross read.
That was his job. But then, as the tide of onrushing Chinese forces overwhelmed the American defenses, the order came to fall back. Kravitz, however, voluntarily stayed at his position and mowed down an entire column of enemy troops moving toward an American position.
His marksmanship allowed the Americans to escape, but his fearlessness in the face of attack ultimately cost him his life. When the Army retook the position, the Jewish machine gunner’s body was found next to his gun.
More than six decades later, the Army and the nation are finally ready to affirm that Kravitz and the 23 other honorees Tuesday long ago proved themselves heroes of the highest caliber.