Past Times

Twice wounded, Army medic saved others in Vietnam firefight

A parade honoring Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Lawrence Joel (right) was held on North Main Street in Winston-Salem.
A parade honoring Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Lawrence Joel (right) was held on North Main Street in Winston-Salem. Courtesy of Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Collection

The Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem bears the name of city native and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Lawrence Joel. The Medal of Honor was presented by President Lyndon B. Johnson at a White House ceremony on March 9, 1967. The Associated Press relayed Joel’s story.

The 39-year-old airborne medic … earned the nation’s highest award for bravery for “conspicuous gallantry” in saving the lives of 13 comrades in a steaming Vietnam jungle Nov. 8, 1965.…

It was the first day of real combat for the stockily-built Tar Heel after 16 years in the Army. In four months in Viet Nam, his company had lost only one man, to a Viet Cong sniper. Joel had been just another soldier, tagging along behind the combat troops, patching up minor wounds.

Until that hot day when he tagged along with three squads of Company C, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade that went in search of the VC in the jungles near Bien Hoa.

The small American force ran into a regimental-size Viet Cong force of about 700 and spent the next 16 hours in living hell.

Joel was wounded twice. One slug struck him in the calf of the leg. Another hit him in a thigh.

“I found a stick on the ground with a little crook in it,” he recalled. “I broke it about waist high and sort of cradled my arm in it so I could hobble around. That way I could make it from one man to the next – sort of fall down beside him, then pull myself up on a tree or something when I finished.”

Joel spent a month in a Saigon hospital and two more months in a hospital in Japan. He went back to the battle zone, still limping, but saw no more action before returning to Ft. Bragg in April of this year.…

Joel, his comrades say, is a mild sort, bespectacled, courteous, humble. He’s not an imposing figure – 5 feet 10 1/2 , weight 168 pounds.

He was born on George Washington’s birthday, 1928. His parents were destitute, living in first one and then another shanty near the Norfolk and Western Railway tracks in Winston-Salem.

He used to wrap his feet in crocus sacks so he could walk along the tracks hunting for coal to warm his house. He’d lay out of school because he didn’t have clothes to wear.

Because he had nine brothers and sisters, a welfare worker took Joel to live with the Clayton Samuel family – he was eight years old, barefooted and shirtless. At 10, he rode with Samuel on his wood, coal and ice truck. His job was to clang the auto brake drum hanging from the side.

He went to school, including Atkins High, where he made average grades. But he wanted to travel, to get away from the slums and near-slums of East Winston-Salem.

And he did. He joined the Merchant Marine at 17…. After a year in the Merchant Marine, he joined the Army on his birthday in 1946.

He served with occupation forces in France, Germany and Italy. He recalled seeing the ragged hungry children in the days following World War II.…

He got out of the Army in 1949, held a number of jobs, and met pretty Dorothy Region while serving as a civilian inspector of artillery shells at Ft. Meade, Md. They married.

In 1953, just as the Korean war was ending, Joel went back into the Army, attended airborne school, and scared silly, made his first jump at Ft. Bragg. It was almost his last one. He bumped against the plane in leaving it, and his jump master chewed him out for showing such lousy form.

He had a tour in Lebanon, and in Alaska was cited for treating troopers burned in a personnel carrier explosion. He patched up broken bones which inevitably follow paratroop drops.

Joel went to Okinawa in November 1964, to join the 173rd Airborne. Five months later he was in Vietnam. He’d never treated any battle casualties, and he’d never seen any action.

That was before Nov. 8, 1965, and 16 hours of hell.

“I’m glad to be alive,” he said recently. “I just wish I could have done more. I’ll never say I deserved the medal. That’s just not for me to say.

“It was just my job.” The N&O Mar. 10, 1976

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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