Lawrence Joel was a United States Army paratrooper who served in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Joel received the Silver Star and the Medal of Honor for his heroism on November 8, 1965, in a battle outside Bien Hoa against the Viet Cong. At the time, he was serving in South Vietnam as a medic with the rank of SP5 assigned to the 1st Battalion of the 503rd Infantry in the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
He was the first medic to earn the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War and the first living black American to receive the medal since the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Joel was born in 1928, the third of 16 children in a family that grew up very poor in Winston-Salem, NC. His family was in such poverty that he was raised by his next-door neighbors until he had reached the age of 18. He then joined the Merchant Marine. A year later, in 1946, he joined the U.S. Army.
When the Vietnam war started his unit deployed to the country. By November 1968, although his unit had been in Vietnam for nearly four months, combat with the enemy had been sporadic and light. That was all about to change.
Joel’s unit was conducting an all-day patrol searching for the Viet Cong. Joel recalled the initial operation as “fairly routine… just like back at Ft. Bragg — going to play war games.” But soon his unit was ambushed by a Viet Cong battalion that outnumbered the American paratroopers six to one.
When the Viet Cong sprang their ambush, nearly every soldier in the lead squad was killed or wounded. Joel was wounded twice in the initial burst of fire. He bandaged his own wounds, gave himself a shot of morphine, and set about taking care of the many wounded troops.
Ignoring the calls from his commander to stay down, Joel moved amongst 13 wounded men, including one soldier who was suffering from a “sucking chest wound” and provided him with a makeshift bandage to keep his lung from deflating.
Once he ran out of medical supplies, he went to the rear to get more and resumed taking care of his wounded paratroopers, hobbling along on a makeshift crutch while the battle raged around.
“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.”
A fellow paratrooper, SP4 Randy Eickhoff, was running ahead of Joel providing covering fire to protect the unarmed medic who was treating the wounded.
The battle raged for 24 hours.
Eickhoff was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart for his own actions. After the battle, Joel was medevaced first to Saigon and then to Tokyo to recover from his wounds. He was initially awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart for his actions.
His commanding officer said of the medic’s actions that day, “Joel was definitely not worried about getting wounded. Usually, when you hear metal flying, the normal inclination is to get as low as you can or to get something between you and the flying metal. But not Joel.”
After three months of recovery, he was told that he was being put in to upgrade his Silver Star to the Medal of Honor. On March 9, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in a White House ceremony, presented Joel with the medal.
President Johnson spoke of Joel’s “very special kind of courage — the unarmed heroism of compassion and service to others.”
“I’m glad to be alive,” Joel said before the ceremony. “I just wish I could have done more. I never say that I deserved the medal. That’s just not for me to say. It was just my job.” Later, the city of Winston-Salem gave Joel a large parade to honor his heroism. It was the first time the city had conducted a military parade for a single individual.
A copy of the remarks that President Johnson made to then SP6 Joel is available in the video below:
Joel was married to Dorothy Region and had two children—Tremaine and Deborah Louise. After his retirement from the army, he worked for the Veterans Administration in Hartford, CN. However, he returned to Winston-Salem in 1982. Two years later he died from complications caused by diabetes. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. In 1986 the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen voted to name the city’s new coliseum the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum.