ARMY HONORS HEROISM
OF RM (Rocky Mountain)
ROCKY MOUNT - The people who
knew Harold B. Durham Jr. remember two sides to him. One was the loving brother, the Army
buddy, the easy-going guy. The other was a fierce warrior who, when his unit was in danger
of being overrun in a battle in Vietnam, rained down an artillery barrage that saved the
lives of many of his comrades. As the battle reached its peak, he waded into it himself.
Though mortally wounded, his unflagging heroism earned him the Medal of Honor, the
nation's highest decoration.
Though the battle was fought
more than 30 years ago on Oct. 17, 1967 the Army has not forgotten Durham's bravery. It
recently dedicated the Hall of Fame building for the former Field Artillery Officer
Candidate School FA OCS in military slang at Fort Sill, Okla., in his memory. It's a great
story to be written about an American kid who did a tough job when it had to get done,
said Jim Shelton, a retired Army brigadier general who, as a major, was coordinating the
Clark Welch, the company
commander Durham fought alongside, remembered both facets of Durham as well. He was as
brave a man as I have ever met, but kind and nice and funny, wrote the retired Army
colonel in an e-mail. For many years it has been too hard for me to talk about those last
Now it is easier, but not yet
Durham was born in Rocky Mount
on Oct. 12, 1942, the son of a buyer for American Tobacco Co., explained John Durham, his
older brother. The Durham family spent about a month here before the father moved on to
another market on the buying-season circuit. The family called Tifton, Ga., home.
Pinky Durham followed his
brother's lead, joining the Army in 1964. He pulled a tour in Vietnam as an enlisted
helicopter and airplane mechanic. As his year there was winding down, he accepted an offer
to go to FA OCS. When he graduated and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in December
1966, he volunteered to return to Vietnam, arriving in September 1967. Durham worked with
Welch's unit as a forward observer, planning and radioing in requests for artillery fire
to support Welch's infantry company.
An operation that started on
Oct. 16, 1967, carried their unit into a stronghold of the Viet Cong, the Communist
guerrillas in South Vietnam. The company withdrew, but was ordered to follow another
company back into the area the next day. The battalion staff was moving with Welch's unit.
The battle quickly turned against the Americans, who were badly outnumbered, according to
accounts by Welch and Shelton. The leading company was destroyed as a unit, and many of
its officers, sergeants and soldiers were killed. That left Welch and Durham to take
charge of the fight. "When Company A (the lead company) was destroyed, Pinky and I
crawled and ran up to where it had been, but there was nothing left of the unit, one of
Welch's e-mails says. Pinky remained forward and started calling the fires that we had
been planning. I ran back (and) brought my company up one platoon at a time. . . . Deadly
enemy fire was coming in on us from three sides when I got back up to Pinky. He was badly
hurt by then, but calmly calling in the artillery fire that kept the enemy from moving in
and killing all of us.
Welch's e-mails and the citation
that accompanied Durham's Medal of Honor paint a picture of a man determined to fight for
his life and those of the men around him. Both Durham and Welch were hit repeatedly all
125 soldiers in Welch's company were either wounded or killed in the battle. At times,
Durham had to shoot his own rifle to help drive back Viet Cong soldiers who were
pressing the attack. At another time, he helped treat wounded soldiers.
Though wounded himself, Durham
put himself in exposed positions so he could better call in artillery fire. Before he
passed out from blood loss, Welch heard Durham calling in more artillery rounds, erecting
a barrier of explosions and shrapnel around the company. Later, when I regained
consciousness, the artillery was coming just as (Durham) had planned, Welch's e-mail says.
My surviving men were surrounded by the enemy, but fighting back and trying to protect the
wounded from both Company A and D and the battalion command group, but my (forward
observer) was dead. Lieutenant Pinky Durham was still holding the radio handset.
John Durham returned home when
the family was informed of Pinky Durham's death. The news struck his father, a Marine
veteran of World War II, particularly hard. "I remember when I showed up in Tifton,
Ga., and (my father) came out of that house completely broken, John Durham recalled. Pinky
Durham's funeral was held on the same day as the high school homecoming, which that year
fell on Halloween.
Interviews with several
participants in the battle those at the scene and others listening in on radio traffic did
not show who submitted Durham's name for the Medal of Honor. The process of approving
citations took almost two years. Durham's mother received the framed medal from Vice
President Spiro Agnew and Gen. William Westmoreland, the Army's chief of staff, on Oct.
31, 1969. Durham's father died between when his son died and the presentation of the
medal. He did not know his son was being considered for the nation's highest military
honor. One of the saddest parts was my father only knew he lost a son, said John Durham.
Though he died long ago,
Durham's life still touches many people who knew him. Stephen Orlofsky, now a federal
district judge in New Jersey and a FA OCS classmate of Durham, has a photo of his friend,
a copy of the Medal of Honor citation and a rubbing of Durham's name from the Vietnam
Veteran's Memorial on a wall in his chambers. While FA OCS was demanding on the men it
trained, Durham never lost his sense of humor or would let the rigor of the program get
him down. Orlofsky recalled Durham as being both an outstanding soldier and a bit
irreverent in the eyes of the officers training them.
Durham was charming and
engaging, in Orlofsky's words, and always smiling, but totally devoted to his country.
When the role of federal judge weighs heavy on his shoulders, Orlofsky looks at the
wall-mounted reminders of his friend and classmate.
"On the days I think I'm having a bad day, I think about Pinky and it puts things
into perspective," he said.
Finally, how did such a brave
man as Durham become known by everyone as "Pinky"?
The answer is found at a
hospital in Rocky Mount the day he was born, explained John Durham. "I think the
real situation was they ran out of blue blankets for boys, and put a pink blanket over