‘I was doing what I was trained to do’
September 6, 2016
May 13, 1967 Quang Tri province, Vietnam People lauded for heroic deeds often deflect the praise by saying they had no choice but to act as they did.
Marine Sgt. Sylvester McIntosh, who received the Silver Star this year for his bravery during a battle nearly 50 years ago in Vietnam, is one such person.
McIntosh, a squad leader with Company A, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, was out on a search-and-destroy operation in Quang Tri province on May 13, 1967, when his unit came under heavy fire from the North Vietnamese Army.
Promoted to lance corporal that very morning, he took charge of his Marines after his platoon leaders became the first casualties, according to his medal citation. Hit by gunfire in his chest while assisting a wounded Marine, he carried that man to safety and returned to make two more rescues before collapsing.
One of the men he rescued died. He doesn’t know the fate of the others.
“I was trying to cover my butt and trying to get my buddies home,” McIntosh, 70, recalled recently. “Other people may call me a hero, but I was doing what I was trained to do.”
The 1-9 came to be known as the “Walking Dead” because of the heavy casualties it sustained during the Vietnam War.
McIntosh’s platoon had just cleared one village and had stepped aside to let a second platoon take over to clear the second village.
“And when they got in, the enemy did what we call a horseshoe,” McIntosh recalled. “They closed the horseshoe on the second platoon, with me following up.”
His platoon formed a reverse horseshoe, and he and his corpsmen went in to recover the wounded and dead. While retrieving the first casualty, he got hit in the chest when his flak jacket slipped open and allowed a bullet to enter.
“But that didn’t stop me from doing what I had to do. I brought one Marine back — he had his jaw blown out. And I went back into the kill zone two more times, and after the third time, I was just too weak to do any more rescuing.”
Dennis Lee, then a private first class in his teens, remembers it as “a fierce firefight.”
“Trees were flying everywhere, all of these Marines were screaming, our machine guns were rattling back and forth,” he said. “Jesus, it was a sound I’ll never forget. And to hear the Marines crying out, who had been wounded bad. All you kept hearing was, ‘Corpsman up, corpsman up.’ ”
McIntosh had a premonition something bad was going to happen that day.
“My lieutenant at that time was Lt. [Jerry Edward] Gorney,” McIntosh said. “He had just came back from the United States from R&R, and we sat and looked at each other, and he said, ‘Mac, you got the same feeling I have?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Something’s gonna happen.’
“My first sergeant and my first fire team leader, they said, ‘Aw, nothing’s gonna happen.’ Well 15 minutes later, Gorney was dead, and I had a bullet hole in my chest.”
McIntosh went back to the United States for care and spent two months at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida. When he was released, he served a year at Parris Island, S.C., before returning to his hometown of Wabasso, Fla. He worked first at Piper Aircraft in nearby Vero Beach and then for the U.S. Postal Service.
In between, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business and a doctorate in religious education.
A minister affiliated with the Church of God of Cleveland, Tenn., he has been the pastor of three churches in Florida and continues to preach to this day
McIntosh says he was religious before he joined the military, but his experience that day in Quang Tri changed his life.
“God spoke to me that day ... And his words to me: ‘You’re gonna get hit, but you’re not going to get killed. I’ve got much work for you to do.’ So I’ve been pastoring ever since I got out.”
McIntosh’s fate remained a mystery to some of the Marines with whom he served in Vietnam. A quarter of a century passed before Lee, who went on to become a master sergeant, learned that McIntosh had survived. He made the discovery at a barbecue at the home of medical corpsman Steven T. Rudolph, who had treated McIntosh during the firefight.
“And we’re sitting in the driveway, drinking beer, telling stories and all that, and I went on to tell the story of McIntosh,” Lee said. “So I’m sitting there telling the story and what have you and I’m finishing up and a fellow walks up and unbuttons his shirt and says, ‘Hey, I’m the fellow you’re talking about.’ ”
Rudolph pushed Lt. Col. Albert Slater — McIntosh’s commanding officer, who was also wounded in the fight — to submit the Marine sergeant for the Navy Cross, the second-highest honor to the Medal of Honor. When the application was lost, Rudolph urged him to reapply. Rudolph died before he could see his comrade get the Silver Star, but Lee and Slater made the award ceremony on Jan. 30 in Vero Beach.
Lee estimates that 68 men were killed in the 1967 clash. Some Marines earned the Navy Cross; others received Silver Stars.
“There were so many people who deserved a medal, but in the Marine Corps you’re just doing your job,” Lee said. “People overlook it. I mean, hell, if I hadn’t been telling that story in that driveway that day, Sylvester McIntosh wouldn’t have never gotten that thing.”
McIntosh sees his exploit as a matter of discipline and duty. The same impulses drove him to act in a similar manner a year earlier, in an incident recorded in Stars and Stripes. In that case, McIntosh shielded Lance Cpl. R.L Bennett from a grenade, knocking him into a hole and covering him with his body. Fortunately, the grenade was a dud.
For Lee, the actions of his fellow Marines in Quang Tri go to the heart of the Corps’ identity.
“That was the only time I truly, truly, truly knew what the Marine Corps was all about, seen it in action firsthand, realized what a devastating power it was,” he said.