When his unit was overwhelmed in Vietnam, Army Second Lieutenant Harold Bascom Durham Jr. did not hesitate to unleash an artillery barrage on the enemy to save the lives of his comrades. Durham did not survive to tell the tale, but his bravery was detailed to others by the men who were there with him. For his actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Durham was born on October 12, 1942 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. That day, he earned the nickname he would carry for the rest of his life: Pinky, apparently because the hospital where he was born ran out of blue blankets, so he got a pink one instead. .
A few months after his birth, Durham’s father, a WWII Navy veteran, and his mother, Grace, moved the family to Tifton, Georgia, where they raised Durham and his two siblings, his older brother John and his younger sister Eugenia.
Durham, who was known to be charming, engaging and kind, graduated from high school in May 1960. Military records show he moved to Durango, Colorado in December of that year. While in the state, he studied at Fort Lewis A&M College (now Fort Lewis College) and worked in the hospitality industry before returning home to Georgia in September 1963.
When Durham’s brother joined the army, he decided to do the same by enlisting in February 1964. While touring Vietnam as a helicopter and aircraft mechanic, he accepted an offer to attend Field Artillery Officer Candidate School, according to a 1999 article in the Rocky Mount Telegram. After receiving his commission in December 1966, Durham volunteered to return to Vietnam. The army agreed and he returned to the besieged country in September 1967, the Telegram said.
Durham was a member of the 15th Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, but on October 17, 1967, he was serving as a forward observer with Company D, 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry Division, about 56 miles north -west of Saigon. Their purpose was to scout the area, and Durham’s job was to plan and radio requests for artillery fire to support the infantry soldiers.
What they didn’t know was that they were entering a Viet Cong stronghold.
At approximately 10:15 a.m., Durham’s battalion was ambushed by a well-camouflaged enemy force that outnumbered them by as much as 10 to one. The young second lieutenant quickly moved into an exposed position so that he could adjust the supporting artillery fire on the enemy fighters.
During a brief lull, Durham tended to the wounded around him despite being the target of heavy sniper fire. A few minutes later, he learned that the forward observer from Company A, who bore the brunt of the attack, had been killed. Later, he would learn that the whole company had been wiped out.
Durham moved quickly to take the place of the fallen forward observer. As he moved into position, enemy soldiers detonated a claymore mine near him, causing severe head injuries and impairing his vision. Despite the intense pain, Durham continued to direct supporting artillery fire at the enemy and even used his own weapon to support the infantry around him. At one point, when the enemy was really pressing the attack, Durham called for supporting fire to descend almost directly on his position.
It was only after the insurgents were twice driven back – with many dead and wounded in their wake – that Durham allowed himself to be driven into a secondary defensive position.
“[Company commander] Lt. [Clark] Welch remembers seeing the brave artillery lieutenant pressing the push-to-talk button on his radio handset with the tip of his wrist, because his hand had been ripped off,” the brigadier-general told the Retired James E. Shelton, the operations officer that day, wrote in “The Beast Was Out There”, a book about the battle, known as the Battle of Ong Thanh.
Although extremely weak, Durham continued to call in the artillery on the enemy and refused to take cover. Instead, he positioned himself in a small clearing which gave him a better view of the enemy’s location so he could adjust artillery fire more accurately. But quickly, he is hit by enemy machine gun fire.
As Durham lay on the ground near death, he saw two Viet Cong fighters approach and fire at helpless wounded soldiers. Gathering his last strength, he shouted a warning to a nearby soldier, who was able to kill the two enemy fighters.
The 25-year-old died shortly thereafter. The radio handset he had used to call in supporting fire was still in his hand.
According to Army records, Durham was one of 56 American and South Vietnamese soldiers killed that day; 75 others were injured and two were missing. Durham’s efforts likely kept these numbers from being higher.
For his bravery, Durham was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The nation’s highest honor for bravery was presented to his mother on October 31, 1969, by Vice President Spiro Agnew and Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland. Sadly, Durham’s father died the same year as his son and he never knew of his son’s honor.
Durham was buried in Oakridge Cemetery in his hometown.
His name has not been forgotten. The Fort Sill Artillery Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame was named Durham Hall in his honor in 1999. In October 2016, the Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton established the Freedom Gallery in his honor.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday”, in which we highlight one of more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have won the highest medal of bravery in the US army.