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Interview with Gary L. Littrell [n.d.]

Unidentified interviewer:

For the editor, just state your name, spell your last name and tell me where you're from.

Gary L. Littrell:

Gary Littrell. L-i-t-t-r-e-l-l. St. Pete Beach, Florida.

Unidentified interviewer:

When you left the military, what was your final rank?

Gary L. Littrell:

I retired after 33 years as commander sergeant major. United States army.

Unidentified interviewer:

Now we're gonna start from the beginning and we're gonna work our way through who you are and how came to the medal. Starting with your childhood. Where did you grow up and what were your hobbies.

Gary L. Littrell:

When - I was born in Henderson county Kentucky which is about 90 miles from Ft. Campbell. My mother got killed when I was 5 years old so I went, moved out on a farm with my grandparents. And when I was about 9 years old, my uncle took me down to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. And we went out on the drop zone and watched the parachute drop. And at the age of 9 years old, I looked up and I seen those boys coming out of those airplanes and I said, that's me. And so at that point, I knew what my life was going to be like. And at the age of 17 years old, on my 17th birthday, I joined the army with a contract to go to airborne school. And went to airborne school. Immediately went to Okinawa. And I was with the old 503rd combat team that converted to the 173rd airborne brigade.

Unidentified interviewer:

When you became 17, you decided to enlist. You just had it in your head, soon as you were eligible -

Gary L. Littrell:

I'd been waiting [PHONE] [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC]

Unidentified interviewer:

When you were 17, you pretty much knew what you wanted to do.

Gary L. Littrell:

I knew what I wanted to do since I was 9 years old. When I made that trip to Ft. Campbell.

Unidentified interviewer:

Tell me about boot camp. You're suddenly 17 and they put you in boot camp -

Gary L. Littrell:

Boot camp was just like a day's work for me. I was out on the farm. I would hunt and walk through the woods at night, coon hunt at night and I just - I joined the army, shoot, boot camp was - boot camp was fun and games. I had to put some rocks in my boots so I'd feel comfortable. I'd run up them hills barefooted so long that, so I dropped a few rocks down in my boots so I'd get through basic training feeling comfortable. But other than it was, basic training was a whiz. I didn't have a problem till I got to airborne school.

Unidentified interviewer:

Tell me about when you were growing up, who did you look up, who were you heroes or who did you say, I want to be like them?

Gary L. Littrell:

You know I really didn't have a role model. Again my mother got killed when I was 5 years old and my dad was a low caliber person that didn't really care much about his family. Had left my mother and was living with another lady. So I didn't really have a role model. I moved out to, moved out in the country with my grndmother and grandfather. And pretty much survived until it was time for me to go in the army. I never had anyone that I really looked up to until I joined the military. That's when I found my true brothers and my true mentors.

Unidentified interviewer:

So boot camp was pretty easy for you.

Gary L. Littrell:

Boot camp was a whiz.

Gary L. Littrell:

And then you said you went off to airborne training. TEll me about that.

Gary L. Littrell:

Airborne training was a little bit different. Even though I'd always wanted to do it all my life, when you get up in that airplane for the first time, and you got that chute on your back and you're looking down the, down the fuselage of a C119 and all your buddies are disappearing in front of you, it gets interesting. So there's an old saying in airborne school in an airborne unit that probably my first 13 jumps were night jumps. It took me 14 jumps to keep my eyes open.

Unidentified interviewer:

You learned how to do that. You were sent in - where did you see your first combat?

Gary L. Littrell:

When I left Okinawa, I come back by ship. And had I not, I would have gone to Vietnam with the 173rd which was really a shame. I left 2 weeks early because I was coming back by ship. And while I was aboard ship, prior to departure, my platoon leader, platoon sergeant received the announcement over the loudspeaker that everyone that is a member of the 173rd please report to your unit immediately. And 2 days out to ship, picked up the ship's newspaper and the 173rd had been deployed in Vietnam. This is 1965. One of the first major units to go into - 173rd. Well also that day in the ship's newspaper, it had the 82nd airborne division which was the unit I was going to be reassigned to - had been deployed to the Dominian Republic. Now not too many people remember that. That was one of the little Grenada, third world rebels down there trying to overthrow the government. So my departure unit and my receiving unit was both in combat and I was stuck out floating on a boat for 14 days. And I didn't take that too kindly. I wanted to get down on the ground and mix it up a little bit.

Unidentified interviewer:

Did you know where Vietnam was -

Gary L. Littrell:

WE, yes, we had heard of Vietnam because the first special forces group out of Okinawa had been in and out of Vietnam since 58. Some of my neighbors would come bacck and they was, they were talking about Vietnam. And I never thought it would escalate to the point that it did. The war turned into a nice political war that killed 58,000 of our people because the stupid politicians - - they wouldn't let the generals fight the war. And don't cut that part out please.

Unidentified interviewer:

We've heard it a couple times. Tell me about your first action. The first time you actually confronted the enemy.

Gary L. Littrell:

I first, the first contact I come - I remember the first contact that day. We, it was an interesting day. We had made contact, a small contact, maybe a company size and I was an advisor to the 23rd Vietnamese ranger battalion. And we dropped back over the hill and called in an air strike. Well it was during the dry season, And when we dropped those 500 pound bombs, it kicked up some big dirt clots. One of them went flying up in the air and come down and hit me right on top of the helmet. Busted my face down in the dirt. I just knew I'd been hit with shrapnel. I hadn't been hit with shrapnel, I'd been hit with a big old dirt clod. So that was my first experience to combat. And then we - after that, after I got the stars out of my eyes, we moved over the hill and moved down and started a little bit of movement to contact - - to find what was left of the enemy after we'd put the air strike on them. So that was my first day of being shot at and being dirt clodded.

Unidentified interviewer:

Do you think that basic training prepares you for contact?

Gary L. Littrell:

Lord, no. Basic training gets the mama out of you and that's it. Makes you quit being mama's milk you know. That's the only thing basic training does. That's a laugh. The only thing it's gonna prepare you for combat is going into a good unit with seasoned troops. Go to the United States army ranger school which I had the opportunity to attend. And there was an instructor prior to going over to Vietnam and being an advisor to the rangers. I can probably say I can attribute me being here today by the training that I received in the United States army ranger school.

Unidentified interviewer:

Were they much tougher on you.

Gary L. Littrell:

OH yeah. It wasn't like basic training. Yeah they made life interesting.

Unidentified interviewer:

Do you remember one particular person and any particular lesson you remember.

Gary L. Littrell:

No, I just remember getting my butt kicked from 5 o'clock in the morning till about 10 o'clock at night. And then when you go out to the field, we were authoritzed 2 hours sleep a night and one meal a day. And that makes you mean. By the time you found that enemy, you want an aggressor enemy, that play enemy, you wanted to kick his butt - you was hungry and tired you know. But it was some good training. Best training that the army had.

Unidentified interviewer:

Let's talk about your medal a little bit. Tell me about where you were at the time, a day or two before. How you engaged the enemy and exactly what happened and kind of hour by hour detail of what happened.

Gary L. Littrell:

Well, that's a rough one. I'll share the parts of it that I can. And the parts of it that I remember. I was an advisor to the 23rd Vietnamese ranger battalion which consisted of 143 Vietnamese rangers. We had 4 American advisors. And we were moving towards the Cambodian border to find the enemy, identify their location, back off and call in air strikes on them. And we moved up on top of this one hill to spend the night. And we were surrounded. We were surrounded by the 29th NVA regiment and the 66th NVA regiment and the K6 Sapper battalion. Which consisted of about 5000 of the North Vietnamese finest. And we were 473 and 4. And it first started with an artillery barrage. And which killed one of the lieutenants, filled the other one's liver full of shrapnel and busted the eardrums of the 3rd sergeant. So I was the only American left after I evacuated those 3. Didn't seem like anyone else wanted to come in and help me. They found kind of excuses why they probably didn't belong up on that hill that night. And so it was a 24 hour, four day fight. And finally walked off the hill 4 days later with approximately I've been told 41 walking wounded and myself.

Unidentified interviewer:

So tell me about what you were gonna do and were you calling in air strikes. Were you -

Gary L. Littrell:

As an American advisor, if you didn't have ana American voice on that radio, you got zero American support. You couldn't get any fast movers, you couldn't get any air support at all. No US artillery. And so my main job was to coordinate air strikes. Was to use that radio and get us ammunition in by helicopter. Evacuate the wounded that we could. We finally - they finally gave up because the fighting was so heavy that they didn't want to come in and evacuate anyone else. Tried to make 2 or 3 runs and drop some ammunition. They did make some high speed low runs and kicked some ammunition out to us. But they couldn't land. And so my primary job was just command and control, trying to get the Vietnamese to stand and fight. And but I was on the radio probably more than anything.

Unidentified interviewer:

HOw - holding up in those first hours is one thing, holding up for 4 days is quite another thing.

Gary L. Littrell:

Training. Go back to ranger school and during that 4 days, where there would be a lull in the fairing, I would probably catnap 10 to 15 minutes maybe and then it would start again. And the body can rejuvenate a lot. Those little what are they called power naps now, it's what, I think it's what the kids in college call them. You know power naps. Well back then we didn't call them power naps. It was catch 10 or 15 minutes if you can. And so I probably dozed several times during those 4 days. But it was at the point that you get very fatigued. I didn't know, I had forgotten a lot that went on on the hill. In 1968 our missions were declassified. And a young historian went to the Pentagon and got the actual operations report. And some of the witness statements for my award. And I sat down, I started reading them and it come back. Oh my God, I do remember that happening. And it - it was of course some interesting reading but you forget a lot of - you get so fatigued that you just, you don't remember everything that went on. You just remember you had your hands full.

Unidentified interviewer:

Could you feel that you had a choice to back off the hill -

Gary L. Littrell:

We were surrounded. There was no backing off.

Unidentified interviewer:

There was no backing off.

Gary L. Littrell:

It was kick butt or die. It was not much of a choice. You know it was fish or cut bait. And I prefer to fish.

Unidentified interviewer:

How did you communicate with the Vietnamese network.

Gary L. Littrell:

Well I went to language school. The allied defensive language institute. And - [PHONE] [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC]

Unidentified interviewer:

HOw did you communicate with the Vietnamese troops.

Gary L. Littrell:

I went to the thing, defensive language institute. And studied the Vietnamese language for a year prior to going over. And then I practiced my Vietnamese when I first got there. BEing assigned to a Vietnamese unit. Even though the Vietnames commanders all spoke English, they would prefer if you spoke Vietnamese. They would prefer to speak Vietnamese until things got hot and heavy. And then their English improved drastically, okay. So yeah, I practiced my Vietnamese. So this was about the 8th month in country. So a year at language school and 8 months being there on the ground and conversing in Vietnamese for 8 months, I spoke the language pretty good.

Unidentified interviewer:

Now having fought this closely with them, I've heard a lot of different stories about how they were as fighters. How would you compare them.

Gary L. Littrell:

I never got the opportunity to fight with the ragbags, I fought with the Vietnamese rangers and they were absolutely warriors to the end. Most of them were grudge fighters. The life expectancy of a ranger is about 8 months. Most of them were vengeance, grudge fighters. They'd lost their wife, their kids, their mothers, their fathers. And they - depending on their religion, most of them believed if they died honorably, they'd come back a better person, hence they weren't afraid of death. Me, I didn't believe that. I didn't want to get killed. I didn't want to be reborn the next day a better person. I wanted to stay the person I was. I kind of liked me. But they were vengeance fighters. They were hard core little buggers.

Unidentified interviewer:

In retrospect now, looking back at that action, would you do it again.

Gary L. Littrell:

Hell no. I wouldn't have done it then if I didn't have to. When we got up on top of that hill and got surrounded and was taking a bad whooping, we didn't have a choice. But no, I wouldn't run up on that hill and holler, you all come. [LAUGHS] No way.

Unidentified interviewer:

When did you find out that you were gonna get the congressional medal of honor.

Gary L. Littrell:

Well I was told - this is funny and hilarious and maybe a little bit sad all in one. I was told when I left country at my going away party that by my commander, that it had, we had all had a little bit to drink that night. You're saying goodbye to a soldier. And we were all tanked up pretty good. And hey buddy, let me tell you, I put you in for the medal of honor. Oh, okay. So I'm going home. Well normally when you're submitted for the medal of honor, it goes through stages. It goes to brigade, then division and then to corps and then army. Well it normally starts out an interim award. Like a bronze star. And then when it meets the next level, they retract the bronze star and give you silver. And then retract and give you a DSC. Most of the time it stopped at DSC. Because the medal of honor most of the time is disapproved. So you walk away with a DSC. Well none of this happened. And I got to reading - I didn't know that much about the medal of honor to be very honest with you. I knew it was the highest award but I didn't know the prerequisites or - and after researching it, it said you have to be recommended within the first 2 years. And it has to be presented within 3 years of the action. Well, 3 years passed. I heard nothing. And I said well, you are sorry rascals. I'm up there getting my butt kicked and everybody back in the rear is getting bronze stars and silver stars for little - - getting in a 2, 3 hour scrap. And here I've been up here for 4 days and 4 nights. Everybody got a nod and I got forgotten about. And I had, to be honest with you, a little - a little upset. And about 3 and a half years went by. And I got a call from the commanding general of the 101st airborne division which I worked in G3. And back then, I was a little wild and pulled some crazy things every now and then. And I heard that the commanding general wanted to talk to me. The first thing went through my mind, oh my God, what the hell did I do now. So I went down and I knew him. I'd been on that red carpet a time or two. And I walked in and reported to him. Sergeant first class Littell reports. Come over, sit down on the couch, I want to talk to you. I said boy, I must have really screwed up. And I said he's gonna take me over, set me down on the couch. Most of the time he just stands me at attention, chews my butt and tells me get the hell out of his office. Well we went over and sat down on the couch. It was General Sidney B. Berry, my idol. And he said we made some small talk. And then waiting for him to tell me why he called me in there to chew my butt. And he finally said, well I want you to know that we just got word from the White House that President Nixon wants you to join him in the White House on the 15th of October so you can be presented the medal of honor. And I was - I was in a little bit of shock. And I went in thinking I was gonna get a butt chewing and come out - being notified that I was going up to meet the president of the United States. So from fear to shock. HOw do you weigh that out. So that's how I was notified.

Unidentified interviewer:

Tell me about the ceremony.

Gary L. Littrell:

Oh ceremony was, well the trip to DC was wonderful. The ceremony was quick. See, my presentation was by President Nixon. And I was right in the middle of Watergate, between Watergate and goodbye. And in between Watergate and goodbye, things was interesting in the White House. And so I was - I was there. It was hot and heavy. He come in, put the medal around my neck, shook my hand real quick and moved on. He had bigger fish to fry that day than me. But we spent 5 days there. And it was wonderful. Did some nice sightseeing and it was an enjoyable trip. END SIDE A BEGIN SIDE B, GARY CONTINUED [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC]

Unidentified interviewer:

What do you think the medal of honor means to you.

Gary L. Littrell:

When I think about the medal of honor, I realize that I'm wearing this medal for the 400 and some people that died those 4 days. I'm their representative. They won this medal. I was selected to wear it for them.

Unidentified interviewer:

Has it changed your life?

Gary L. Littrell:

No. Not really. I think it did in the beginning. I was told it did by a good close friend of mine. You see you take an old aamy sergeant born in Spottsville, Kentucky. That's in between Poopy Holler and Pee Ridge. And then joined the military and have a couple trips to Vietnam. And nothing really exciting happening in your life. And all of a sudden, everybody's bowing, the ladies are curtsying and everybody's shaking my hand and you go to the White House. And you meet the president. And then you go over to the Pentagon and meet all the generals. And then I come back to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, back to my real job, and I had placed myself up on a pedestal a little bit. And one night, Sergeant major Joe Feeney, good friend of mine looked at me and he says, you know I used to like you. Says I don't like you anymore. He says you know you have been shot in the butt with the glory gun. NOw come on down off that damn pedestal that you placed yourself on, back down here with the guys that know you and love you. And you know I didn't have a response for that. And I went home and for 2 or 3 days, you've been shot in the butt with a glory gun. I don't like you anymore. And I talked to a few of my other friends. And they said yeah, you - you're not as likable as you used to be. And so I had to self evaluate myself. And say hey, what happened happened. Now we're back in the real world. And so yeah, it affected me for a while. It doesn't affect me now. But yeah, temporarily shot in the butt with a glory gun.

Unidentified interviewer:

Talk about the brotherhood of fighting beside people and working with people in the military.

Gary L. Littrell:

One of my closest friends in St. Pete Beach Florida right now was the first American face that I seen when I come off the hill. And I was talking to him on the radio. And he said, hey, you're getting close to my perimeter. HOw bad off are you. I said I'm physically okay. He says what can I do for you. And I said I want a cold drink of water and a cigarette. And when I broke through his perimeter, there he was with a canteen cup of cold water and a cigarette. He lives in the same hometown that I do now. We have dinner together every Saturday night that I'm home. And after that, sit around and have a little poker game. So he's a brother. Not blood, much thicker than blood.

Unidentified interviewer:

Many people have fought on behalf of this country. What does that mean to you. What should it mean to the country?

Gary L. Littrell:

You know until September the 11th, we could say that the price of freedom has been prepaid in other countries. We've never had to fight in our home country because we have fought our battles in other countries to prevent those battles from coming here. September the 11h we took an attack and all that changed. And life as we knew it has changed since September 11th.

Unidentified interviewer:

What lessons do you think your grandchildren should take away from your medal.

Gary L. Littrell:

I don't know.

Unidentified interviewer:

What do you tell them?

Gary L. Littrell:

I don't. [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC]

Gary L. Littrell:

Neither of my sons and one of them is stationed right here at Barksdale, he's a B52 pilot. My other son was in the air force for 4 years, got out. Nether of my sons have ever come up to me and said dad, could I see your medal. Dad, what happened in Vietnam. And it's probably my fault. Because when I come back from Vietnam, we were dirty we were dirty, filty rotten dogs. That's the way society viewed us. I refused to talk about Vietnam. And I think my boys seen my reaction when people would ask me about Vietnam. And I think they thought it was probably a safe bet not to ever - but one of these days, I would like for my sons to come up and say dad, tell me what you done in Vietnam. Can I hold that medal. Can I see it. Can I hold it in my hand. Neither one of them ever have to the best of my knowledge.

Unidentified interviewer:

What will you tell them.

Gary L. Littrell:

I will tell them the honest to God truth of any question that they ask. I would answer as honest and truthful as I possibly could.

Unidentified interviewer:

If the country has something that they should learn from this, learn from valor from not only you but from all recipients of the medal, what do you think they should learn? .

Gary L. Littrell:

You know I have a - when I talk to the schoolkids, I tell our, I tell our kids that a general order and a decision made by congress has per se made me a hero. HOwever, every young man and woman, every schoolkid can be my hero. And it's very easy. Everyone knows right from wrong. Children know right from wrong. My 2 year old grandson knows what's right and what's wrong. He'll do something wrong and he'll turn around and look at me like uh oh, is papa gonna say something. In order to be my hero it's real easy. You know it's wrong to use drugs, you know it's wrong to bring unwanted children into this world. Don't succumb to peer pressure. Do what's right. Just say no to what is not right and you will be respected by your peers. And you'll be my hero.

Unidentified interviewer:

We're about a year from September 11th at the time of this taping, tell me what your thoughts are -

Gary L. Littrell:

You know I feel for the people that gave their life. I feel also for the 5 the what, 58,000 men that gave their life in Vietnam. Anyone that has to give their life or not give their life, no one gives their life, they have their life taken from them - I feel for. I feel for the [ ? ], I feel for the children. I also feel that our country let us down and our government let us down. I think starting with possibly President Carter and moving forward with the destruction of our military, the downsizing of our military, the destruction of CIA, destruction of our intelligence gathering, we as a country left ourself open for what happened on September the 11th. Our government is responsible for those deaths. Because had we had a strong government, had we have had a strong intelligence agency, had the CIA and the FBI not been egotistical son of a guns that wouldn't share information, had we'd of had a president for the last 8 years that cared about our country and the protection of the freedom of our civilians, we would have known there was a threat. We could have done something about that threat. just as if we could have prevented that 58,000 deaths in Vietnam. Yes, I blame the enemy. Yes, they brought it to our doorstep. But we could have prevented that had we had strong government agencies working together. And a president that cared about America.

Unidentified interviewer:

ONe more question - you were on the hill for 4 days. Talk about your faith.

Gary L. Littrell:

You'll never find an atheist in a foxhole being fired at. Okay. I've never run across one. I've been in a lot of foxholes with a lot of soldiers, with a lot of fire, a lot of ammunition popping around their head. Never been in a foxhole with an atheist yet. On the fourth night, I pretty much had come to the conclusion that I was dead. It was over. A very quiet peaceful tranquil feeling come over. My god and I have our own thing going. We understand each other. And that night I knew that I would probably never see the sun shine. It was a quiet peaceful tranquil feeling. Thank God he didn't take me. He left me here for a reason. I'm not sure I found that reason yet. But there's a reason I'm here.

Unidentified interviewer:

Have I not asked you anything that you wanted to talk about.

Gary L. Littrell:

I think you hit most of the bases. You done your homework.

Unidentified interviewer:

Well I try. [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC] [SOUND CUT] [END INTERVIEW]

 
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