War memories remain for Medal of Honor winner

Way Back When

Vietnam vet says fear helped him do what he needed to

November 08, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

At some point during the day, Brian M. Thacker's mind travels back to a remote hilltop in Kontum Province, in South Vietnam's Central Highlands. He vividly recalls the faces and names of the brave men who occupied Fire Base 6. It is forever 1971.

"I came to realize that it was inevitable and that I would think about it every day," Thacker said in an interview this week. "I tried to put it behind me and I think that's the way it is with all of my colleagues."

A Vietnam-era Army first lieutenant, Thacker, 58, is retired from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and lives in Wheaton.

What makes Thacker distinctive is that he is one of Maryland's five living Medal of Honor recipients. He is also one of 83 Marylanders decorated with the Medal of Honor - the nation's highest military award for valor in combat - since the medal was created in 1861.

The Medal of Honor has been presented to only 3,340 men and women, and today fewer than 135 recipients are alive. A new book, Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty, profiles 116 of them, including Thacker.

He will attend a book signing and discuss his war experiences at 2 p.m. today at the Hamilton Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, 5910 Harford Road.

Thacker was born in Columbus, Ohio, the son of a career Air Force officer.

While studying at Utah's Weber State University, he was a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps. After graduation in 1969, he was commissioned a second lieutenant.

In the fall of 1970 he went to Vietnam. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 92nd Artillery, which provided support for Army combat engineers.

The following spring, he took command of a six-man observation team assigned to Fire Base 6. Its job was to support South Vietnamese forces firing on enemy units in the valley below.

At dawn on March 31, a superior North Vietnamese force attacked along a 60-mile front that also engulfed Fire Base 6.

Thacker was awakened by the sound of heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and rifle fire. Three of his men were killed in the attack. Those still alive resorted to hand-to-hand combat as they made their way from bunker to bunker attempting to fight off the enemy.

As the morning wore on, Thacker called in air support while attempting to keep his men's spirits up. The first helicopter was shot down, and so was the second. Surviving crew members joined Thacker's men.

For four hours the men desperately tried to defend their position. By late afternoon, Thacker organized the removal of his forces while he remained behind to provide covering fire with his M-16.

Risking his own life, Thacker called for artillery fire on his own position in order to allow his forces more time to escape. Unable to leave the area, he spent eight harrowing days in a bamboo thicket while eluding the enemy.

He hadn't had time to put on his uniform when the base was attacked, so he was still wearing a white wool nightshirt. It kept him warm at night when the bamboo jungle cooled off from the heat of the day.

At times, Thacker was so close to the enemy that he could hear them talking, even smell them. "I thought, `Thank God I'm alone.' If there were two of us, we would've talked. We would've made noise. We would have been discovered," he said.

"However, I think they knew I was there but didn't want a prisoner. Plus, they were tired and beat up and probably didn't want to take a chance," he said.

His only source of water was what he was able to lick from leaves picked up from the forest floor. Food consisted of a few ants that he trapped.

"I was growing weaker every day and I kept saying to myself that I had to move tomorrow. So, I'd start up the hill, go a few meters and rest. When you're in that condition, 10 meters is an eternity. However, I never completely gave up hope. I always knew I had a chance," he said.

"While not overly religious, I prayed to every god that I could think of including those from mythology and even those who were native."

As he approached Fire Base 6, which had been retaken by a South Vietnamese ranger unit, Thacker used his white wool shirt as a signal flag.

Thacker was treated for severe dehydration by a doctor who slowly gave him controlled amounts of water. He figures he lost 25 pounds to 30 pounds during his ordeal.

A day after his return, Thacker was airlifted to Pleiku, then sent to Japan for further treatment.

"At that point, I didn't know what had happened to everyone else. The 'copter crew was busy and couldn't talk to me. I didn't know if anyone else had survived," he said.

He later learned that three of his men had been killed during the attack on Fire Base 6.

"We were close. And because we were a small team we got closer than the book says we should have. But you can't help it. You're in close quarters. They were a good team," Thacker said with a catch in his voice.

It was the crew of the first helicopter that recommended Thacker for the Medal of Honor, and he admits to being stunned when he learned of their action.

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