Vietnam vets' last battle: Getting dead Philly hero the medal he earned

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WHEN LURAL LEE Blevins III was killed in Vietnam, heroically covering the withdrawal of his buddies, he should not have been there.

Two days earlier, he was notified to leave after a year in the war zone. He should have been safe in the rear, packing his gear, but he stayed on because his buddies needed his skill. The Germantown native was three months short of his 23rd birthday when he died, and his death created unfinished business.

Blevins became one of the Edison 64, the number of Vietnam fatalities from Edison High School, the grimmest number of deaths recorded by any American high school.

A Spec/4 with the 101st Airborne, Blevins' regular assignment was with an artillery unit, but "he left the relative safety of a howitzer gun crew to carry my radio while I was serving as a forward observer for the infantry," says Ron Christian, then a lieutenant. "I knew Earl better than anyone in Vietnam," he says, using the name Blevins preferred. He hated the name "Lural" and let everyone know it.

By "carry my radio," Christian means radio equipment in a rucksack that weighed 24 pounds. It had a very visible flexible antenna "and was a real bullet magnet," he says.

"Blevins was brave, committed, smart, and funny," Christian says.

Christian's job was to call in artillery fire to support the infantry. On Blevins' first day in the jungle, "we were guarding a bunch of Chinese trucks and artillery pieces that the North Vietnamese army had buried in dense jungle," says Christian.

"We were sitting in the middle of the perimeter when the jungle exploded in a barrage of rockets and machine gun fire coming from the high ground. My first reaction was to jump under one of the trucks," says Christian.

"A raw, new guy to the jungle," Blevins "raced to the radio disregarding the continuous explosions and tried to call in a fire mission. That's what I should have done," Christian says.

"He moved towards the firing to do my job. He showed a natural bravery and instinctively disregarded his own safety."

From Christian, with whom he became friends, Blevins learned how to be a forward observer. That job puts you in the front of the unit to call in airstrikes on enemy positions.

Months later, they were attached to a Special Forces unit for a dangerous two-week operation. There was a lot of action and the two men split up to cover separate units attacking NVA positions.

When it was over, the Special Forces "gave him high praise," calling Blevins a "fearless dude," Christian relates.

After that operation, Blevins and Christian were assigned to different units. "A month later he was dead," says Christian.

Blevins was assigned to join troops in the A Shau Valley who had the mission impossible of pushing well-trained and armed North Vietnamese regular troops off a mountain top. They held the high ground and had access to supplies and reinforcements.

Blevins' unit was on a ridgeline adjacent to what was called Hamburger Hill. "If you went up it you were turned into a piece of hamburger," the troops said.

Blevins' commanding officer there was Lt. Charles Newhall.

"Our mission was to be the worm on the end of the fish hook, to get into heavy contact," then call in bombers, says Newhall, but it was a failed plan. The enemy was dug into two-level bunkers which made them safe from bombs and artillery.

Last year, Newhall wrote a book about his Vietnam experience called Fearful Odds. The book details Newhall's relatively brief war experience, followed by his lifelong battles with PTSD. In addition to nightmares and wide-awake flashbacks, he suffers from survivor's guilt, with the blood of those under his command staining his hands. He volunteered for Vietnam because he wanted to prove himself as a warrior. He didn't know what he was asking for.

His first contact with Blevins was eye-opening.

The enlisted man addressed him as "Lt. Whitey" and gave him a Black Power salute.

It is in his book. Newhall laughed when I asked about it.

"Half his friends were white," says Newhall. "He was an incredibly good forward observer and he was there to save my ass. He could call me anything he wanted."

Other witnesses I spoke to confirmed Blevins' sense of humor.

"He was a happy guy, he had a goofy sense of humor, he was just a friendly person," says Greg De Laurentiis, a New Jersey native who was there when Blevins died. When he and four other men were pinned down by gunfire, Blevins rushed in to call for air support.

The day before, Newhall says, Blevins was wounded by a grenade fragment to the head when he took out a machine gun bunker. He returned to the hill with his buddies the very next day.

"He's maybe 100 feet behind us," says De Laurentiis. "He's pinned down with what's left of the rest of the company, getting intense fire from NVA who are beginning to come down the hill."

At that point, after carrying some wounded down the hill, "Blevins decided to stay to give us some more support with nothing but an M-16 and a radio," says De Laurentiis. Blevins was shot in the forehead and died immediately, giving his life to save comrades. "I am alive today because Blevins stayed while others left," says De Laurentiis.

"He was supposed to have left the front lines before we went up that hill," says Newhall, adding, "If he had not been there our [20 to 30] casualties would have been doubled." He stayed because he was the best man needed for the job.

"Covering the retreat of the platoon was heroic," says Newhall. "I got a Silver Star for the same thing."

Feeling strongly about Blevins' heroism, Newhall put in paperwork recommending him for the Medal of Honor, the highest military award.

But the paperwork got lost and forgotten. When contacted, the Army Records press office did not respond to a request for information by deadline.

In his book, Newhall expresses guilt about Blevins not getting the medal he had earned, so much so that he reached out to Darryrl Johnson, a now-retired Edison teacher who has become the unofficial historian of the Edison 64.

Johnson now serves as the Philadelphia contact for the men who served with Blevins and is pushing for an investigation into the murky mystery of Blevins' citation.

He knows the citation for the medal will have to be rewritten and witnesses will have to be found to testify. He is in contact with all the Vietnam veterans I have mentioned, each of whom says his life - and others' - were saved by Blevins, who was cheated, posthumously, by the Army.

I didn't have the honor of knowing Lural Lee Blevins, but I thought the facts of his heroism, and his missing decoration, deserved exposure around Veterans Day. They say of veterans of that war, and all wars, "All gave some and some gave all."

Christian, De Laurentiis, Newhall and Johnson know they have a challenging road ahead of them, but they are motivated. They would like to hear from anyone else who served with Blevins. Contact me and I will direct you.

I am motivated to help them get the proper honor for Blevins, and I will report on their efforts from time to time.

stubyko@phillynews.com