In 1970, on a hill near the Cambodian border, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Gary Littrell exhibited the courage that earned him the nation's highest military award for valor - the Congressional Medal of Honor.
After a video display of medal of honor winners for a group of Augusta Preparatory Day School pupils Friday, Littrell recounted the four days and four nights in Vietnam that permanently etched his name in the annals of U.S. military history.
"Things didn't seem right," the retired sergeant recalled. "It was too quiet. We were in the middle of the jungle and I couldn't hear any monkeys or birds."
On that April Fool's Day morning 35 years ago, Littrell, 61, said he grabbed some explosives and ventured off alone to blow a landing zone for helicopters near the hill. Moments later, the then 26-year-old heard a familiar and ominous sound.
"I heard that thwoop, thwoop, thwoop," he said. "You hear it once and you never forget it. The sound of mortars leaving the tubes."
The initial attack killed or wounded his superior officers, leaving only him and about 450 South Vietnamese soldiers to repel an attack by more than 5,500 North Vietnamese forces.
Three nights into the fight, Littrell said he and his men were out of ammunition and out of hope.
"I had to face reality and I felt comfortable with it," he said. "The reality was any minute ... I was going to be dead. It was a comfortable feeling in a way, because I knew that I did the best I could do."
Littrell said he sat by a tree and lit a cigarette as enemy combatants overran his position. He remembers one North Vietnamese soldier walking up to him and asking him for a cigarette. Littrell said he gave him one and lit it for him.
The enemy soldier thanked him and continued up the hill.
"The only conclusion I could come up with was that we were two professional soldiers and neither of us wanted to be there," Littrell said.
On the fourth day, Littrell said, he was given the order to withdraw.
All that remained of his force of roughly 450 was 44, with only himself and one other person avoiding injury.
Still, Littrell said he had eight kilometers of rough, enemy-infested terrain to cross before reaching safety.
While helicopter gunships fired across their flanks to prevent attacks, bombers periodically blew holes in front of their position.
"We leap-frogged from hole to hole all the way back," he said.
Despite the valor he displayed those four days, Littrell said he doesn't consider himself a hero.
"I was just there to do my job, and my job was to get as many people off that hill alive as I could," he said.
Were it not for his friends on the ground and in the air, Littrell said, he wouldn't have survived.
"That's the moral of the story," he said to the day's group of pupils. "If you have a friend in need, be the first one there and you'll be my hero."
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