How far would you go in the name of camaraderie? Rather than answering through words, Medal of Honor recipient Pfc Milton Lee Olive has shown it through his action—by literally throwing himself into a grenade if it meant for his comrades to live through another day.

A Young Veteran

Olive was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, in mid-fall 1946. He’d spend a couple of years with his grandparents in Lexington, Mississippi, before returning to his hometown, where he’d enlist in the US Army in 1964 at the height of the Vietnam War.

He was deployed overseas under the 173d Airborne Brigade, the first major combat unit to arrive on the hostile grounds of Ho Chi Minh, and immediately became a hardened soldier way before turning 18.

As the Army’s only combat-ready unit in the Pacific at the time, it was only a matter of weeks before the 173rd’s “Sky Soldiers” came face to face with the enemy. Soldiers were trying to secure and secure the 60-square-mile area known as War Zone D, but Viet Congs kept pouring in, infiltrating the parameter again and again.

Vietnam War Zone D
US Army map indicating War Zones C, D, and the Iron Triangle, circa 1965-1967. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Described by his fellow soldiers as a quiet young man, Olive was among the men who attempted to advance into what they called the “Iron Triangle” territory to find and capture a band of Viet Cong on October 22, 1965. It was an intense cat-and-mouse chase, leading the platoon deep into the thick jungle and, at one point, pinned down temporarily due to heavy fire. Olive and his four comrades, including his platoon commander, were pursuing the insurgents when a grenade was thrown into their path.

Without hesitating, Olive ran towards the grenade and grabbed it before yelling, “I’ve got it,” tucking it into his body to absorb as much impact as possible to spare his fellow soldiers from the blast. He died just two weeks before his 19th birthday.

His platoon leader told reporters later how “[i]t was the most incredible display of selfless bravery I ever witnessed.”

The selflessness and sacrifice of the young veteran didn’t go unnoticed as he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, with his father and stepmother receiving it on his behalf on April 21, 1966, presented to them by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It’s worth noting that Olive also became the first African-American to receive the highest valor award of the Vietnam War. Below is the official citation:

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Pfc. Olive was a member of the 3d Platoon of Company B, as it moved through the jungle to find the Viet Cong operating in the area. Although the platoon was subjected to a heavy volume of enemy gunfire and pinned down temporarily, it retaliated by assaulting the Viet Cong positions, causing the enemy to flee. As the platoon pursued the insurgents, Pfc. Olive and four other soldiers were moving through the jungle together when a grenade was thrown into their midst. Pfc. Olive saw the grenade, and then saved the lives of his fellow soldiers at the sacrifice of his by grabbing the grenade in his hand and falling on it to absorb the blast with his body. Through his bravery, unhesitating actions, and complete disregard for his safety, he prevented additional loss of life or injury to the members of his platoon. Pfc. Olive’s extraordinary heroism, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, are in the highest traditions of the US Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.”

Medal of Honor Award Presentation 1966
President Johnson presented Olive’s Medal of Honor to his family at a ceremony on the steps of the White House in 1966. (Image source: CMOHS)

A plaque at Honor Field in Fort Polk, Louisiana, and a park in Chicago in 1999 were also dedicated to his honor. Furthermore, a community college was named after him, along with a fellow Medal of Honor recipient and Chicago native Carmel Bernon Harvey Jr., among many others. In 2020, the American war drama “Da 5 Blood” by Spike Lee briefly mentioned Olive during a conversation about the romanticization of the Vietnam War in Hollywood, with actor Clarke Peters, who plays Otis in the film, wishing for more black war heroes on the big screen.

“I would be the first cat in line if there was a flick about a real hero,” Peters said. “You know, one of our blood. Somebody like Milton Olive.”

While Olive had gone too soon, his legacy on the battlefield as a brave, selfless soldier lives on.