Kenneth Stumpf, Medal of Honor recipient from Vietnam War, dies at 77
The Washington Post April 29, 2022
Kenneth E. Stumpf was working the late shift at a Wisconsin printing factory in 1965, the year he turned 21, and the year he hoped that maybe - just maybe - he might be drafted to play professional baseball. When he wasn't at the factory, Stumpf played for a minor league team in Menasha that a scout had been eyeing for some time.
Stumpf was heading to bed after work, he recalled years later to the Hawaii Reporter, when he half-jokingly told his mother to wake him if any draft letters came in the mail. Not long after he had fallen asleep, his mother roused him. He had received a draft letter - not from a Major League Baseball team, but rather from the Selective Service. He had been drafted into the Army.
Stumpf volunteered to go to Vietnam, where his service would coincide with a massive buildup of U.S. troops and the height of fighting in the war. He received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration, for his actions seven months into his first tour, when he rescued three wounded American soldiers and, under unremitting fire, led a successful assault on enemy bunkers in Quang Ngai province.
Stumpf returned for a second tour of duty in Vietnam, was wounded and then went back for a third, serving in the Army until his retirement in 1994 at the rank of sergeant major.
Stumpf died April 23 at his home in Tomah, Wis. He was 77 and had pancreatic cancer, according to his family.
"It was patriotism," Stumpf once told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, explaining why he volunteered for service in Vietnam. "At that time I was gung-ho. I couldn't wait to see my first action. When it happened, my whole mouth dried up and my rifle jammed on me."
He was 22, a squad leader with the rank of specialist, when the head of his platoon sent him on a search-and-destroy mission near Duc Pho on April 25, 1967. Danger was inevitable, he told his men, so he put himself in the first and most exposed position in their formation.
"No one objected," read an account of the mission published in Soldier of Fortune magazine.
At roughly midday, Stumpf left his squad in the relative safety of a trench while he went to retrieve a field radio. Gunfire swiftly broke out, sending him back. Three of his six men, he discovered, had moved beyond the trench and had been hit in the legs. Gravely wounded, they were stranded.
Reinforcements arrived, and with them even greater enemy fire. In time, everyone except Stumpf had been struck by grenade shrapnel.
"Stumpy, look out!" someone shouted to him. "There's a grenade between your legs!"
"Stumpf looked down," according to the Soldier of Fortune account. "There was indeed a grenade between his legs. He calmly picked it up, tossed it back at the enemy, then resumed firing his M-16."
Despite the ongoing gunfire, Stumpf set off to rescue the three wounded men from his squad. The first had broken a leg and could not move.
"Grab me around the neck and don't let go," Stumpf told him, before carrying the man back to the trench.
He then returned for the second man, pulling him almost all the way to safety before collapsing from the exertion. Still, Stumpf went back for the third man and pulled him, too, back to the trench.
By the early afternoon, U.S. artillery had destroyed the thick vegetation in the area and revealed a complex of enemy bunkers, according to an account in the book "Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty" by Peter Collier. Amid continuing enemy fire, Stumpf organized an attack on the bunkers, destroying them with a hail of grenades. The last outpost presented a particular challenge.
"Armed with extra grenades, Stumpf ran to it over open ground and threw a grenade through the aperture," Collier wrote. "When the [Viet Cong] managed to throw it back out, Stumpf hit the ground in a fetal curl as it exploded; then he stood, pulled the pins on two more grenades, held them for an extra second, and tossed them in, this time destroying the gun emplacement."
President Lyndon B. Johnson bestowed the Medal of Honor on Stumpf in 1968. Because of his actions, the citation reads, Stumpf's unit was able to overrun the enemy.
"To this day I don't consider myself a hero," Stumpf said years later. "It was a job. My obligation. I was the only one in the squad not wounded."
He sometimes reflected on the fact that he had wanted to throw baseballs and found himself hurling grenades.
Kenneth Edward Stumpf was born in Neenah, Wis., on Sept. 28, 1944, and grew up in nearby Menasha. His parents ran a tavern.
After being discharged from the Army in 1967, Stumpf returned to his factory job, then reenlisted and served his two subsequent tours in Vietnam, from 1969 to 1971.
He remained in the Army for nearly three decades, then in retirement did part-time work assisting prisoners with community service.
Between his first and second tours in Vietnam, Stumpf married Dorothy Guralski. She died in 2014 after 46 years of marriage.
Survivors include three children, Scott Stumpf of Manassas Park, Va., Jobi Spolum of Tomah, Wis., and Adrian Stumpf of La Crosse, Wis.; two sisters; and six grandchildren.
Stumpf was at times outspoken in his criticism of high-ranking U.S. military officers in Vietnam, remarking to the Wisconsin State Journal when he retired that "they led from the front in peacetime but from the rear" in combat.
He said that even decades after the war, he would be on a walk in the Wisconsin woods and find himself mentally transported back to the jungles of Vietnam. He would have liked to return, he said, to meet the people who had once been his enemies.
"I'd sit and drink beer with these guys and hug them," he said. "They were doing the same thing we were doing."