Black Force Recon Marine, battlefield commission, Vietnam War hero … snubbed for the Medal of Honor?
Author: Todd South | Originally published 10/8/2020 by Marine Times
At the end of March 1967, Marine 2nd Lt. Jim Capers stepped off on what was to be a four-day foot patrol into the jungles near Phú Lộc, Vietnam.
He snaked through that jungle terrain, sporting a recent battlefield commission as a second lieutenant, leading just nine 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company Marines and a dog named King.
The mission: maneuver through rugged enemy territory and locate a suspected North Vietnamese regimental base camp. That meant creeping up on a force of 1,500 or more enemy soldiers with support far in the rear.
They weren’t there just to gather more intel for reports back to headquarters. They were to observe the NVA regiment to protect the flank of Company M, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines.
The first day of that planned four-day march, the recon team found out there wasn’t any reason to “suspect” a regiment was in those deep jungles. They bumped into a 20-soldier force.
Two more contacts on the second day, which resulted in 22 enemies killed in action, but also severely wounded one of his Marines. That might have sent another team home. But Capers pursued the enemy calling fire on their base camp, which reports following these events would show thwarted an attack on Company M.
On the final day of their jungle jaunt, an enemy daisy-chained claymore mine triggered an attack on his team. Capers sustained multiple wounds from both the explosion and subsequent “dense barrages of direct and indirect enemy fire.”
Bleeding profusely and moving under two broken legs, Capers shook off the shock and continued fighting, directing his men in the counterattack. Even after taking on morphine he coordinated supporting fire and moving his team to the helicopter extraction that saved their lives.
“While struggling to maintain consciousness and still under attack, Major Capers demanded continuous situation and status reports from his Marines and ensured the entire team was evacuated before himself,” his award citation reads. “Barely able to stand, Major Capers finally boarded the helicopter and was evacuated.”
What the citation doesn’t say is that at least two times Capers got off the tiny H-34 helo because it loaded down too heavy and couldn’t take off. But he wanted to get his men out of there.
It finally went airborne, later crash landing. One man lost a kidney, another lost a leg ― all of the Marines but the dog survived that battle.
That award was for a Silver Star Medal. Capers didn’t receive the citation until 2010, which was 43 years after the actions of that fateful day. Ultimately, Capers would receive two Bronze Star Medals with “V” for valor and three Purple Hearts.
He is one of the most decorated Marines in Force Reconnaissance history. He is also black.
‘One of history’s most outstanding special operations team leaders’
Many believe that the medal doesn’t begin to recognize Capers deeds that day, which was just one day of a career that spanned the early days of Marine Force Recon and its covert deeds in Vietnam.
David “Bull” Gurfein, CEO of United American Patriots, said his group is leading efforts to get another review of the actions and Capers’ citation for a potential upgrade to the Medal of Honor.
“I was approached by Marines who served with him, not one person said anything bad about Maj. Capers,” Gurfein told Marine Corps Times. “Every one of them said he deserved the Medal of Honor.”
The United American Patriots group has gained attention in recent years for its advocacy on behalf of military members and veterans charged in criminal cases. Most notably among them is Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, who was pardoned in 2019 by President Donald Trump after serving prison time on murder charges stemming from actions in Afghanistan.
The group also supported Army Green Beret Maj. Matthew Golsteyn, who was facing much-delayed charges in connection with an alleged murder in Afghanistan in 2010.
Currently, a high-profile case that they are seeking to have charges dismissed involves two Marine Raiders and a Raider corpsman charged in the death of a U.S. military contractor and retired Army Green Beret, who died following an after hours altercation outside a nightclub in Iraq.
Capers award push is an effort to see that the major gets the credit he is due and ensure that internal politics didn’t play a role in the four-decade delay and selection of the Silver Star Medal, Gurfein said.
There’s ample evidence that the harrowing mission had its fair share of valor, and Capers was at the center of the action.
At the same 2010 ceremony where Capers received his Silver Star Medal, fellow team members Ron Yerman, Richard Crepeau, John Moran and Billy Ray Smith each were awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V” for actions during the same mission.
Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Lefebvre, former Marine Special Operations Command chief, said at that ceremony that Capers was, “one of history’s most outstanding special operations team leaders.”
‘Ask a Marine’
The now 83-year-old Capers was recently celebrated by the Bishopville, South Carolina, community with the installation of three bronze plaques.
Capers lived in Bishopville, South Carolina, as a child but his sharecropper family left the Jim Crow-era South for life in Baltimore, where he spent the rest of his youth.
One plaque is a map of North and South Vietnam. The other details Capers career of heroics. The middle plaque is a reproduction of a famous recruiting poster where Capers at the center in his blue dress uniform above the words “Ask a Marine.”
Those three plaques were titled “The Place, The Legend, The Man.”
Capers is likely the first black Marine featured prominently on a Marine Corps recruiting poster. He is also possibly the first black Marine to receive a battlefield commission in the Vietnam War.
While he was in college, Maj. Gen. James L. Williams, who is also black, saw that recruiting poster and said to himself, “I’d really like to know who that is and someday I’d really like to join Force Recon,” Williams said in a 2018 documentary about Capers, titled “Major Capers: The Legend of Team Broadminded.”
The Marine Corps was slow to integrate blacks into the ranks, keeping segregated in all-black units through the end of World War II. Under presidential orders, all services were forced to desegregate. However, with the reduction in forces following the war, the Corps forced black Marines to leave the service or become stewards.
Hispanic and Asian Marines were allowed to integrate during this period and into the Korean War.
This was the backdrop for Capers when he graduated high school in 1956 and enlisted.
Capers first served in the infantry and then in the reconnaissance community, where he eventually worked in first, second and third recon battalions.
In his more than two decades in the Marine Corps he saw his share of discrimination. Not being able to eat in restaurants off base with his men, slights and snubs from white officers, even generals. But he also experienced camaraderie among his Marines that transcended prejudice, he said.
After the 1967 battle he and those wounded on his team were medically evacuated for treatment in Japan. While in the hospital there, he said the assistant to the 3rd Marine Division commanding general said he was being put in for the Medal of Honor.
He said that he was told at least two battalion commanders wrote recommendations for him for the medal.
“But they never went forward,” Capers said. Capers told Marine Corps Times that he believes his race played a role in the lack of submission for the award during the war.
After having worked in some of the leading edge experimentation with the early reconnaissance units, being recognized for helping chance special operations tactics through unorthodox approaches to guerilla fighting in Vietnam, Capers was summoned to the Pentagon to talk with the Secretary of the Navy.
Then a major, he stood outside of the secretary’s office alongside his escort, a white junior Marine captain.
A Marine general exited the office and went straight to the captain, saying he must be the decorated Marine he’d heard so much about.
After a few tense moments, the captain corrected the general, telling him he was talking to the wrong person.
“I had the rank on, he just assumed because I was black, even though I was in charge, in full uniform, he walked by me,” Capers said. “Then he turned and said, ‘Oh, you’re the famous Maj. Capers.’ I didn’t want to talk to him. He disrespected me. He didn’t respect my rank, he thought, ‘this African American can’t be the guy going to see the Secretary of the Navy. That created some issues.”
He was told through back channels that one commander in the authorization chain for medal upgrades said he would, “die and go to hell before he saw me get the Medal of Honor.”
There have been more than 3,400 Medals of Honor awarded since the decoration was created during the Civil War, according to Army data. Black service members have received only 89 Medals of Honor.
Since the late 1990s at least 15 medals have been awarded due to administrative oversight, clerical errors or upgrades, so medal upgrades are not without precedent.
A 2016 to 2019 review of awards for Iraq and Afghanistan actions resulted in four upgrades to the Medal of Honor, 30 service crosses and 23 Silver Star Medals.
Those who received upgrades to the Medal of Honor as a result of the reviews included Senior Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski, Army Sgt. Ronald Shurer and Sgt. Travis Atkins along with Air Force Tech Sgt. John Chapman.
That three-year review did not result in any upgrades to the Medal of Honor for Marines.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger was involved in the previous packet that resulted in the Silver Star Medal. His current involvement was not immediately clear, Berger’s spokesman told Marine Corps Times.
Capers rose to the rank of staff sergeant and led a group known as “Team Broadminded” in Vietnam, conducting more than 50 classified missions.
Those missions included recovery operations to retrieve secret items and the pilot’s body of a downed Air Force B-57 that had crashed behind enemy lines.
Capers took a team deep into enemy territory on another mission, ordered by President Lyndon B. Johnson to attempt a rescue of four U.S., two Australian and 26 South Vietnamese Prisoners of War at a jungle camp.
While the major’s exploits parallel a Hollywood script and many are detailed in his memoir, “Faith Through the Storm,” it was the final mission to Phú Lộc that has supporters calling for another review that might give the Marine what they say is his due ― a Medal of Honor.
About Todd South
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.