JAMES CAPERS JR.
Major, United States Marine Corps
ABOUT THE CASE
In 2008, Major Capers was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam 41 years earlier.
Despite strong endorsements from two Generals and several of the men, Capers served with, the recommendation was downgraded two levels at the Pentagon.
No explanation was ever given.
For his actions as a patrol leader during a reconnaissance mission in which his team, codenamed “Broadminded,” supported Company M, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, during a search and destroy mission against a suspected regimental-sized enemy force.
Team Broadminded engaged the enemy seven times during their mission, which took place March 31 to April 3, 1967, in the vicinity of Phu Lac, Vietnam. On the final day, a larger enemy force ambushed the nine-man patrol with small-arms fire and several claymore mines. The team was immediately pinned down, and every member was wounded - most of them severely.
Capers, a second lieutenant then, took more than a dozen pieces of shrapnel to his legs and abdomen. Despite his wounds, Capers directed his team to lay down suppressive fire to gain fire superiority and set up a hasty defense. He called for mortar and artillery strikes against the enemy, directed the treatment of the wounded, and called for the team’s evacuation, ensuring all his men made it out alive.
Yerman, a sergeant in Vietnam, served as Capers’ platoon sergeant, assistant patrol leader, and radio operator during the roughly 11 months they served together stated “He was always the last man on the chopper. I was the second to last man. I’d get aboard and I’d nod. If I didn’t nod, he’d know that all the men weren’t there, and we wouldn’t leave.”
“If I was going to die there in Vietnam, I was going to die fighting,” said Capers, a retired major whose 22 years in the Corps would earn him fame as a revered and innovative fighter and one of the Marines’ first black special operators. “That was just the way we fought. You go out fighting. You kill as many enemy as you could — and that would mean that they could not further fight your guys or other American troops.”
It was April 1967, after three days of patrolling behind enemy lines in search of a reported North Vietnamese encampment near the village of Phu Loc just north of Hue city, when Capers’ nine-man Third Force Recon Team — known as Team Broadminded — found itself in the crosshairs of an entire NVA regiment.
The fighting was as intense as any he had seen in nearly a year in Vietnam spent conducting dozens of commando raids in northern South Vietnam, Capers recalled.
With two broken legs and peppered with shrapnel from the blast of a Claymore mine, Capers battled a mental haze brought on by massive blood loss and a shot of morphine as he fought to free his men from the assault.
With his entire team wounded and their loyal service dog, King, killed in action, Capers ordered his Marines to evacuate on a small H-34 chopper. He continued the fight — calling in strikes on “danger close” enemy positions as he fended off the attackers with his M-16. But the extraction helicopter was overloaded, and his men needed critical medical attention. Capers made the impossible decision — let the chopper take his men and King’s body away from danger while he stayed behind to face certain death.
“I figured it’s better to lose one man than to lose the whole team,” Capers, 80, told Stars and Stripes in a recent telephone interview from his home near Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C. “Any commander worth his salt would care for his men before his self.”
But the men would not leave their leader behind.
Capers — who would become the first black Marine officer nominated for the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, but would instead receive the Silver Star — was pulled aboard the chopper. After two failed attempts at liftoff, the pilots finally got the H-34 airborne, carrying the men to safety and beginning Capers’ journey toward recovery. He would later become the face of the Corps’ first recruiting campaign targeting young black men.
Operation Deckhouse IV (August 1966) – 3rd Force Recon team are sent on an amphibious assault to clear the DMZ of Viet Cong forces and secure the area for incoming Marine forces... 3rd Force Recon rescues 16 Marines overcome by 1,000 NVA while preventing enemy troops from crossing into South Vietnam.
B-57 Recovery Mission (1966) – A Top Secret mission to recover the contents and pilot remains from a Bomber that has crashed in enemy territory... The plane is rumored to have highly sensitive materials that included a nuclear bomb...
Song Troui River (December 1966) – Recover the body of a missing Marine in the Song Troui River... They find the body and discover 200 rounds of unexploded ordnance hidden by the NVA.
Operation Doubletalk (1966) – A Top Secret mission to rescue American, Australian, and South Vietnamese POWs located 20 miles behind enemy lines... A rescue chopper arrives but almost leaves Capers behind who is singlehandedly holding off the enemy.
Khe Sanh (February 1967) - 3rd Force Recon is sent to the undermanned Khe Sanh base if overrun, is a gateway to South Vietnam. The unit is sent to patrol, infiltrate NVA territory and kill high-value targets.
Phu Loc (1967) - The weary & undersized 3rd Force Recon is sent on a search and destroy patrol to locate an NVA regimental base in Phu Loc. With no logical explanation of how the chopper could have taken off and flown under hostile fire with no fuel, the surviving members believe that the “hand of God” intervened to save them.