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An inconspicuous war hero

June 11, 2009
by Melinda Swenson

When decorated Army Ranger and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Peter Lemon attended Colorado State in the late 1970s, he might as well have been wearing camouflage. He quietly went about his studies, never speaking of his tour in Vietnam.

What follows is part one of a three-part story about Peter Lemon, one of our more illustrious Colorado State alumnus. When part two and three are posted, links to earlier segments of the story will be provided.

Army Ranger preferred anonymity

In the summer of 1975 when decorated Army Ranger and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Peter Lemon hitchhiked into Fort Collins, all of his possessions were on his back, including his medal in its blue award case.

(At right: Lemon in Vietnam)

He enrolled at Colorado State and quietly went about his studies, never speaking of his tour in Vietnam. He kept his medal out of sight in a shoebox in his closet.

“I was a freshman at 26,” said Lemon, “And it was terrific. They called me ‘the old man,’ which I took as an endearment. It was a wonderful adventure. I worked while I went to school and still had time for skiing, golf, tennis, rafting, racquetball, socializing, and running with my dog on the Oval.”

Few people, including his closest friends at CSU, knew of the ordeal Lemon and his platoon had faced and the sacrifices they’d made in a battle on April 1, 1970, at a small American outpost on the Cambodian border in Tay Ninh Province, Republic of Vietnam. At the time, Lemon was only 19 years old. 

Battle at Fire Support Base Illingworth

Lemon and the other men in Company E (RECON) platoon had just returned from a recon patrol. They were dog-tired and hoping to get some rest when an attack began. The men quickly realized the perimeter they were defending was in danger of being overrun.

For more than three hours, the men defended the outpost from wave after wave of attacks from close to 400 enemy soldiers. Three of Lemon’s friends, Casey Waller, Nathan Mann, and Brent Street, were killed in the encounter.

An unrelenting attack

Lemon’s Medal of Honor citation describes how he used a machine gun and rifle until both malfunctioned and then used hand grenades to fend off the enemy soldiers, who were now focusing on him. After eliminating all of the enemy soldiers in the vicinity except one, he struggled in hand-to-hand combat before killing the last remaining soldier.

(At right: Army Congressional Medal of Honor)

He then carried a seriously wounded comrade to an aid station and returned to his position under a hail of small arms and grenade fire. Although wounded a second time, he continued to defend the post and was wounded a third time. At this point, every member of the platoon had been injured, and it seemed as though the enemy would finally overwhelm them.

Locating an operable machine gun, Lemon climbed an embankment, exposing himself to enemy fire, and fired on the enemy until he collapsed due to his multiple wounds and exhaustion.

When he regained consciousness, Lemon refused to be evacuated ahead of other members of his platoon. When he finally left the battle zone, he was hospitalized for a month to recover from his injuries.  

“It isn’t mine”

The Army had to overcome Lemon’s objections to accepting the Medal of Honor – he felt it rightfully belonged to the men who died and the others in the unit. “It isn’t mine,” he told a friend.

Seven months after leaving the Army and just after his 21st birthday, Lemon finally relented and President Richard Nixon placed the medal around Lemon’s neck in a ceremony at the White House. The medal consisted of a gold star surrounded by a wreath, topped by an eagle on a bar and inscribed with the word, “Valor.”

The Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration awarded to a member of the United States armed forces, is in recognition of a valorous act “at the risk of his (or her) life, above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States.” Because of the nature of the criterion, the medal is most often awarded posthumously.

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Contact: Melinda Swenson
Phone: (970) 491-2463