SAN DIEGO (AP) — It began with a retired Marine general listening to veterans reminisce about the terrifying day they fought the North Vietnamese army troops on a jungle hillside and saw 75 percent of their unit be killed or wounded.
Maj. Gen. John Admire said he was shocked to learn not one of the unit's survivors who fought while rescuing their fellow Marines had been recognized for their courage: One veteran still has shrapnel in his face from the April 30, 1967 battle, when he fought for eight hours after getting injured. Another suffered severe head wounds after taking over the machine gun from a slain comrade.
Now 46 years later, those two men, Joe Cordileone and Robert Moffatt, will be honored with the Silver and Bronze Star medals, respectively, in a ceremony Friday at the Marine Recruiting Depot in San Diego.
The unit's bravery during the first Battle of Khe Sanh was never recognized until now because the commanders who make such recommendations were killed: Of the more than 100 American troops on the hill, 27 were killed and 50 were wounded, Admire said.
"After a certain time period has passed, you cannot go back unless you can prove the awards were lost but we were able to sufficiently explain that the reason nothing was submitted is there was not anyone hardly left alive to submit the recommendations," Admire said. "But I knew we had to remedy this because there was no doubt in my mind that what they did was absolutely courage beyond belief."
Admire conducted research to verify the veterans' stories and prove they were deserving of the honors. Thanks to his efforts, four other Marines from the unit have been given Silver Stars for their actions that day.
Cordileone, the chief deputy city attorney for San Diego, and Moffatt, a retired cost estimator who lives in Riverside, are the last members of the unit to be recognized, Admire said.
Both were serving with Company M, 3rd Marine Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, when they advanced to secure Hill 881 South and were attacked.
Cordileone was helping his fellow troops carry their platoon commander who was hit by a mortar when a second mortar hit, killing the platoon commander and pummeling Cordileone's face with shrapnel. The other two men helping him were killed. Cordileone continued fighting back for eight hours while scrambling to recover wounded Marines from the battlefield strewn with bodies.
At one point, he temporarily lost consciousness.
The Navy says Cordileone's efforts saved the lives of at least 10 Marines.
Retired Pfc. Moffatt also helped save lives, according to the Navy. When his machine gunner was killed, he immediately took charge of the weapon, firing at the Vietnamese forces.
He continued firing until he suffered severe head injuries, military officials said.
Cordileone said Admire's diligence in getting the medals demonstrates "a great deal about the camaraderie of Marines who have been in combat together."
"For the past four-and-a-half decades, I've just been a Marine who did my job and now that I'm getting a Silver Star I still look at it like that. I just did what I thought needed to be done, although I am very grateful for the award," said Cordileone, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and still has shrapnel between his cheeks and teeth.
"I'm just so honored and so proud that they're finally being recognized for their heroism," Admire said.