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Army Major John J. Duffy > US Department of Defense > History

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Army Major John J. Duffy often operated behind enemy lines during his four tours of duty in Vietnam. During one of these sorties, he single-handedly saved a South Vietnamese battalion from being decimated. Fifty years later, the Distinguished Service Cross he received for these actions was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

Duffy was born on March 16, 1938 in Brooklyn, New York and enlisted in the Army in March 1955 at the age of just 17. By 1963 he had earned his service as an officer and joined the 5th Special Forces Group as an elite Green Beret.

Duffy was deployed to Vietnam four times during his career; 1967, 1968, 1971 and 1973. During his third term of service he received the Medal of Honor.

The fight

In early April 1972, Duffy was senior adviser to an elite South Vietnamese Army battalion. When North Vietnamese forces attempted to overrun Fire Support Base Charlie in the country’s central highlands, Duffy’s soldiers were tasked with repelling the battalion-sized unit.

As the offensive neared the end of its second week, the South Vietnamese commander working with Duffy had been killed, the battalion’s command post destroyed, and food, water, and ammunition running low. Duffy had been injured twice but refused to be evacuated.

In the early hours of April 14, Duffy unsuccessfully attempted to set up a landing zone for resupply aircraft. As he continued to advance, he managed to close in on the enemy’s anti-aircraft positions to call in airstrikes. The major was wounded a third time by gun splinters, but again refused medical attention.

Shortly thereafter, the North Vietnamese began blasting the base with artillery. Duffy remained in the open so he could direct US gunboats towards enemy positions to stop the attack. When this success led to a lull in the fighting, the major assessed the damage to the base and made sure the wounded South Vietnamese soldiers were moved to relative safety. He also made sure that leftover ammunition was distributed to the men who could still defend the base.

Soon after, the enemy resumed their attack; Duffy continued to direct gunboat fire at them. In the late afternoon, enemy soldiers were marching towards the base from all directions. Duffy had to move from position to position adjusting return fire, spotting targets for artillery observers, and even directing gunboat fire at his own position, which had been compromised.

Nobody is left behind

By evening it was clear that Duffy and his men would be overrun. He began organizing a retreat and, codenamed Dusty Cyanide, continued to call in gunship support for cover fire and was the last man to leave the base.

Early the next morning the enemy ambushed the remaining South Vietnamese soldiers as they retreated, inflicting additional casualties and scattering the able-bodied men. Duffy set up defensive positions so his soldiers could drive the enemy back. He then led the remaining men – many of whom were seriously injured – to an evacuation area, although the enemy continued to pursue them.

When they reached the evacuation site, Duffy again directed gunboat fire at the enemy and marked a landing zone for the rescue helicopters. Duffy refused to get on any of the helicopters until all the other men were on board. According to a report on the evacuation in the San Diego Union Tribune, as Duffy balanced on a strut of his helicopter as he took off, he rescued a South Vietnamese paratrooper who had begun to fall out of the helicopter, grabbing him and pulling it back. Then he helped one Helicopter door gunner who had been wounded during the evacuation.

An upgraded honor

Duffy initially received the Distinguished Service Cross for the actions described above; However, this honor was recently upgraded to the Medal of Honor. With his brother Tom at his side, Duffy, now 84, received the nation’s highest award for military valor from President Joseph R. Biden during a ceremony at the White House on July 5, 2022.

“It seemed inscrutable that about 40 men could still be alive without food, water or ammunition amidst the swarm of enemy combatants,” Army Gen. Joseph M. Martin, the Army’s deputy chief of staff, said during the ceremony. “It was Major Duffy’s many exploits, including calling for strikes against his own position to allow his battalion to retreat, that made the escape possible. Major Duffy’s Vietnamese brothers … credit him for helping their battalion saved from total annihilation.”

Three other Vietnam War members received the medal at the same time as Duffy; Army Spc. 5 Dennis M. Fujii, Army Staff Sgt. Edward N. Kaneshiro and Army Spc. 5 Dwight Bird Fountain.

From warrior to poet

Duffy retired in May 1977. During his 22-year tenure, he received 63 other awards and honors, including eight purple hearts.

The major moved to Santa Cruz, California after his retirement and eventually met and married a woman named Mary. As a civilian, he was president of a publishing company before becoming a stockbroker and founding a discount brokerage firm that was eventually acquired by TD Ameritrade.

Duffy also became a poet and described some of his battle experiences in his writings to pass the stories on to future generations. Many of his poems are published online. The major has written six volumes of poetry and was nominated once for a Pulitzer Prize.

A poem Duffy wrote entitled “The Forward Air Controller” was engraved on a memorial in Colorado Springs, Colorado to honor the victims of the Forward Air Controllers. According to Duffy’s website, he also wrote a requiem that he performed during the monument’s dedication ceremony. This requiem was later added in bronze to the centerpiece of the memorial.

A former soldier, retired Army Col. William Reeder Jr., wrote Extraordinary Valor: The Fight for Charlie Hill in Vietnam, a book detailing Duffy’s exploits during the 1972 battle.

According to Duffy’s website, he was a charter member of the Special Operations Association and was inducted into the Infantry OCS Hall of Fame in Fort Benning, Georgia in 2013.

This article is part of a weekly series called Medal of Honor Monday in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have received the U.S. military’s highest medal for bravery.

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