APRIL 21, 1966
Milton Olive III became the first Black soldier awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War.
Olive had known tragedy in his life, his mother dying when he was only four hours old. He spent his early youth on Chicago’s South Side and then moved to Lexington, Mississippi, where he stayed with his grandparents.
In 1964, he attended one of the Mississippi Freedom Schools, and he joined the work in Freedom Summer, registering Black voters. Concerned that he might be killed, his grandmother sent him back to Chicago, where he joined the military on his 18th birthday.
“You said I was crazy for joining up,” he wrote. “Well, I’ve gone you one better. I’m now an official U.S. Army Paratrooper.”
He joined the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade and became known as “Preacher” for his quiet demeanor and his tendency to avoid cursing. On Oct. 22, 1965, helicopters dropped Oliver and the 3rd Platoon of Company B into a dense jungle near Saigon. They returned fire on the Viet Cong, who retreated. As the soldiers pursued the enemy, a grenade was thrown into the middle of them. Olive grabbed the grenade and fell on it, absorbing the blast with his body.
“It was the most incredible display of selfless bravery I ever witnessed,” the platoon commander said.
Olive saved his fellow soldier’s lives. Then-President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the medal to his father and stepmother, and he has since been honored with a park and a junior college named for him.