SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Using an ammo crate as a chair and an Army tent as his office, Pfc. John “Mac” MacFarland set up his typewriter and began to write.
It was the sweltering summer of 1969, about a month after the fierce battle of Tam Ky in South Vietnam. MacFarland had been ordered to write a recommendation nominating Spc. 4 Santiago Jesse Erevia for the Medal of Honor, and he tried to put into words how Erevia’s “conspicuous gallantry” had saved so many fellow soldiers.
“Although Erevia could have taken cover with the rest of the group,” MacFarland wrote, “he realized that action must be taken immediately if they were able to be relieved from the precarious situation they were now in.”
MacFarland, 23, a college student who had been drafted, spent weeks working on the nomination, sure that Erevia, 23, a high school dropout who had enlisted, would be awarded the medal. MacFarland sent the recommendation up the chain of command.
“And then I never heard another thing,” MacFarland recalled decades later.
Over the decades, he searched lists of Medal of Honor recipients, looking for Erevia’s name. Again and again, he dug out his mimeographed copy of the recommendation, fearing he had failed to capture Erevia’s extraordinary heroism.
“I found myself … wondering how I could have done a better job,” MacFarland said.
He thought of writing Erevia to say he was sorry the recommendation fell short. But he never wrote.
“This became one of the ghosts that haunted me,” MacFarland said.
Erevia doesn’t remember MacFarland. But they were together May 21, 1969, in the fight for Tam Ky, south of Da Nang.
As MacFarland noted in the recommendation, at about 4 p.m. their unit was ordered to “move out and engage the enemy.” The aim, he recalled, was to take pressure off other companies so they could evacuate their dead and wounded.
MacFarland joined other soldiers in going over the wall, firing his rifle as he stepped into the rice paddy. When another soldier fell wounded, MacFarland rushed to his aid.
Erevia came over to MacFarland and the wounded soldier and asked whether they had any extra ammunition. The wounded man handed Erevia his M-16 rifle, magazines of ammunition and several hand grenades.
Erevia, who was serving as the radio-telephone operator, made it across the rice paddy, which was as long as a football field. As Erevia and other soldiers remained under heavy fire, he and a friend, Spc. Patrick Diehl, took cover behind a tree.
Erevia chokes up talking about that day.
“I asked Diehl, ‘Do you see anything?’ He never answered.”
Diehl had been fatally shot in the head.
Erevia decided he needed to act.
“It was either do or die,” he recalled in a recent interview. “I said, ‘Well, if I’m going to die, I might as well die fighting.’ ”
Erevia ran toward one of the bunkers and threw in a grenade, killing the soldier inside. He moved to a second bunker, bullets still flying around him, and tossed another grenade to knock it out too.
After exhausting his supply of grenades, Erevia headed for a fourth bunker while firing two rifles. He killed a North Vietnamese soldier at point-blank range.
“Our company commander, Capt. David Gibson, along with his radio-telephone operators and medic and several wounded had been pinned down and were receiving intense fire from several enemy positions,” MacFarland recalled. Without Erevia, “it is doubtful that they would have survived the day.”
The next year, 1970, Erevia and MacFarland left Vietnam and went their separate ways.
Erevia became a mail carrier, retiring in 2002 after working 32 years for the Postal Service. He lives in San Antonio with his wife, Leticia. He has four adult children, including a son who served in the Iraq war.
MacFarland went on to become a high school environmental science and biology teacher. Also retired, he is a bachelor living in Aston, a Philadelphia suburb. The two men, now 68, have had no contact since leaving Vietnam.
MacFarland kept his copy of Erevia’s recommendation in a binder with photos and other Vietnam memorabilia. He shared his distress about Erevia and the Medal of Honor with Army buddies. They assured him that it wasn’t his fault and that the military probably decided against the Medal of Honor because, unlike many medal recipients, Erevia wasn’t wounded in the battle. Still, MacFarland said, “I was not convinced that it was not as a result of my inadequacy as a writer.”
Unbeknownst to MacFarland or Erevia, Congress in a 2002 defense bill ordered a Pentagon review to determine whether discrimination prevented Jewish and Latino veterans from receiving the medal. The Pentagon examined the records of more than 6,000 Distinguished Service Cross recipients to determine whether the award should be upgraded.
Last summer, Erevia was surprised to receive a telephone call from a military officer who told him to expect a call from somebody at the White House. When the call came, a woman announced that the president of the United States was on the line.
“The Pentagon has not released its Medal of Honor review, but in February the White House announced that to correct a historic injustice, the Medal of Honor would be awarded to 24 veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam on Tuesday. They include Erevia and 16 other Latinos, one African American and a Jew.
Getting a posthumous medal at the same ceremony will be William F. Leonard, an Army World War II veteran from Lockport who died in 1985. His exploits, detailed in a Feb. 22 Buffalo News account, included fighting his way through sniper fire to capture a roadblock from the Germans. The Army said that during the review, officials found that several other soldiers who were not Jewish or Hispanic, also deserved greater recognition than they had received.