Paul Bucha, a graduate of West Point and leader of the “clerks and jerks” squad, is also a Medal of Honor recipient. In 1967 Bucha arrived in Vietnam, where he was put in charge of a squad consisting of writers, intellectuals, and soldiers who had been in military prison.
Bucha recalls, “We were called the ‘clerks and the jerks,’ we were a few smart guys and a lot of badasses … considered the losers of all losers.” Being new to Vietnam himself, he grins while remembering. “I, too, was a loser, so we were sort of meant for each other,” Bucha stated.
Following the Tet Offensive, the 89-man company Bucha belonged to took part in a mission to push the Vietnamese out of Saigon. A helicopter dropped them behind enemy lines, and they destroyed fortifications for two days straight.
After resupplying in a clearing on March 18, Bucha and his men pushed into the jungle as night approached. There, a few of his men saw Vietnamese women and water carriers, which was a good indication that there was a camp nearby. Bucha ordered his men to fire a few rounds out into the jungle to test the waters.
“The entire mountain returned fire … I said, ‘Oh my God,” recalls Bucha. Suddenly an entire Vietnamese battalion was returning fire. Bucha and his squad of twelve dived for cover in a storm RPG and heavy machine guns fire.
Spotting a Vietnamese soldier in a tree with an automatic weapon, Bucha figured he would just blow up the tree. “I just started throwing hand grenades,” he said. “When the weapons stopped, I looked around and no one was firing at me. There was a calm, and I’m not sure if the calm was in my mind or if it was actual calm.”
Ordering his troops to withdraw to a more defensible location, Bucha, and his men engaged in a massive firefight that lasted several hours. A dark thought came to Bucha’s mind while worrying he and his men would be overrun: “What a hellhole to die in.”
After giving each man in his squad a number, Bucha would call out a number over the radio, and the corresponding man would begin lobbing grenades at the enemy to make the squad seem bigger than it was.
Eventually, an Australian pilot came over the radio and Bucha requested him to level a couple of nearby hills. The pilot obliged by dropping two 750-pound bombs, the explosions sending out shockwaves that shook the soldiers.
“When I turned around, my men were all laughing, and I started laughing, and we realized we’re not in this alone,” he said. “[I thought] we might make it.”
After a U.S. helicopter finally arrived, Bucha ordered the wounded to be evacuated. When dawn broke the next morning, and the enemy retreated, Bucha discovered he and his squad had killed 150 North Vietnamese soldiers. 10 Americans had also lost their lives in the firefight.
Later learning he would receive the Medal of Honor, Bucha told a sergeant “I don’t deserve it.” The sergeant eventually convinced him that he would not be wearing it for himself, but for his men.
“Every day of my life, I think back to what I could have done better that night … to bring those 10 [Americans] home,” Bucha says.
Bucha makes sure to share his experiences by giving speeches to military groups at his Alma Mater, West Point. “I try to go somewhere one day a week, 52 times a year, to where troops are … When I see them and listen to them, I come away grateful … for the privilege to be among them.”