Friday, November 28, 2008
Marine Vietnam Vet Awarded Silver Star After 40 Years
It’s always nice to see a fellow Vietnam veteran (and fellow cop) honored, even if it’s long past due:
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Orlando-area man receives Silver Star for Vietnam heroics 40 years later
November 28, 2008
For decades, Frank Ambrose never questioned why he didn't receive a medal for a firefight in Vietnam that killed or wounded everyone in his 15-man patrol.
After all, a medal wouldn't bring back the friends he lost that day outside Da Nang when his group of Marines stumbled upon two battalions of the North Vietnamese Army.
"We didn't care about medals back then," Ambrose said. "That was the last thing on our minds."
The enemy soldiers were just as surprised as the outnumbered Americans that day -- Feb. 7, 1968 -- which might be the reason Ambrose lived to talk about the ordeal and to hold the Silver Star he was recently awarded 40 years late.
About half his patrol was killed that day, including the Marines on either side of Ambrose when a rocket-propelled grenade hit as they took cover in a roadside ditch. "It blew all three of us out of the ditch."
He was hit above the eye by shrapnel that is still there. "My face was covered with blood," he said.
"I was the only one left conscious in the front group," he said, recalling how he stood his ground with a machine gun until another group of Marines arrived, alerted by a call from the patrol's radio man just as the attack began.
Although Da Nang was attacked by the North Vietnamese Army, it was the only major city in South Vietnam that didn't suffer a major attack, and Ambrose thinks it was because his patrol interrupted the enemy as they were preparing to launch it.
"If they had known we were coming, they would have set up a better ambush for us," he said.
But neither side was ready for the battle. "My flak vest was open," Ambrose said.
"I just opened up," he said, firing "every place I saw a muzzle flash."
At one point, so many bullets were hitting the ground in front of Ambrose that it felt as though his face was being sandblasted.
Gathering ammo from fallen Marines, Ambrose fired for 30 to 40 minutes before the first medevac helicopter arrived. "I was told to get on it," he recalled.
Instead, he got more ammunition and continued firing. He watched as more than 20 enemy soldiers ran across a dike in a rice paddy, and he shot as many of them as he could.
A somber expression crossed Ambrose's face as he talked about that.
"Every one of them had mothers, dads, sisters, brothers. That's something to think about."
When a second helicopter arrived, Ambrose climbed aboard. He could see enemy soldiers running, so he got ammunition from the helicopter's gunner and continued shooting.
"I just opened up on them," he said. "I don't know whether I hit anybody or not. I shot till I got out of range."
Soon after Ambrose arrived at a hospital, a one-star general and a gunnery sergeant showed up with a tape recorder to ask him about the firefight and told him he had been recommended for a medal. The award never came, and Ambrose never asked about it. At the time, he was a private first class, but Ambrose left the military a lance corporal.
After his discharge, Ambrose returned to Central Florida and spent more than 20 years in law enforcement, most of it with the Seminole County Sheriff's Office. He and his wife of 28 years, Barbara, live in Longwood. They have two sons, both in the Air Force.
About four years ago, Ambrose attended a military reunion and ran into one of the Marines he helped save during the firefight. The man asked what medal Ambrose received, and Ambrose told him he didn't get one.
"The next thing I know, the colonel was talking to me," Ambrose said.
That was Col. William K. Rockey, his retired battalion commander, who never knew that Ambrose didn't receive the Silver Star for his actions that day.
Earlier this year, Ambrose, 60, received a phone call telling him the president had given him the award.
"They asked me where I wanted to receive it," said Ambrose, who asked if it could just be mailed to him.
Not hardly, he was told. "They told me I could pick any military base in the world."
Ambrose had never been back to Parris Island, S.C., where he reported as a recruit, so that was his choice.
In September, with a 40-member Marine Corps band playing, and with all the pomp and pageantry he likes to avoid, Ambrose received his medal.
A lot had changed in 40 years. The first time Ambrose was at Parris Island, he walked around with a drill sergeant's nose stuck to the back of his head, Ambrose said.
"This time I was the guest of the commanding general for four days."
Gary Taylor can be reached at email@example.com or 386-851-7910.
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Congratulations to former lance corporal and retired law enforcement officer Frank Ambrose.
Charles M. Grist